While personality counts in democratic politics, individual quirks don’t explain everything. The visceral aversion of many French voters toward President Emmanuel Macron also reflects deeper social fissures as a result of changes in party politics that began decades ago.
NEW YORK – France is not the United States. Many liberals, myself included, worried that Marine Le Pen might win the French presidential election for the same reason that Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016: thanks to the resistance against the more liberal candidate, the populist far right I would sneak by a hair.
Fortunately, enough voters, who don’t like Emmanuel Macron, held their noses and elected him in the second round to thwart Le Pen’s rise. If you have to choose between cholera and the plague, many voters say, the first alternative was clearly the best. Macron himself recognized him in his speech as the winner and stated: “To all those who voted for me, not to support my ideas but to prevent the extreme right from winning, I am indebted for their votes.”
But the fact that 41.5% of voters have chosen Le Pen, a candidate who represents a deeply reactionary, nativist and illiberal variant of French politics, remains very worrying. Why, then, do so many people hate Macron?
The reasons French voters say they reject Macron are similar to those cited by American voters who couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton: arrogance, privilege, aloofness, and — as in the case of Clinton’s unfortunate comment about ” the herd of [los] deplorable” Trump supporters – the habit of insulting the less educated and conservative-minded people they perceive in them.
True, Clinton lacked people skills, unlike her husband, former US President Bill Clinton. And Macron can seem dismissive of those who stand in his way. But, although personality affects democratic politics, personal peculiarities do not explain everything. The visceral rejection of Clinton and Macron also reflects deeper social fissures caused by changes in party politics that began decades ago.
Political parties used to be united by economic class interests. The left, closely linked to the unions, represented the interests of the industrial working class, and the right embodied small and large business. Liberal democratic systems worked because these parties balanced each other. It was clear what each stood for and most voters felt that they influenced the fortunes of one side or the other.
This began to change in the 1980s, when the left began to move away from economic class interests to gravitate more towards social and cultural issues such as anti-racism, gender and sexual emancipation, and multiculturalism. Trade unions were weakened by deindustrialization, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, and their ties to the socialist and social democratic parties began to fray. The left gained popularity among more educated and relatively better off urban voters, many of whom were disliked by religion and opposed to various forms of social conservatism, such as racial prejudice.
The great mistake of these left-wing elites was to assume that the working class, urban or rural, would naturally share their “progressive” social and cultural ideals. In fact, many of those who consider themselves to be working class are conservative. Religion thrives among the poor. Immigrants are often perceived as a threat to employment. The rights of homosexuals are not part of their main concerns. And this is not just happening among white voters. In the United States, many Latinos, and even blacks, now vote for the Republican Party.
The left’s move away from class-based politics began in the era of trade union degradation under UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan, and became even more visible after the collapse of communism in the bloc. Soviet. In the West, the need to balance the free market economy with moderate redistribution was no longer considered as a priority. Even the formerly socialist Labor Party in the UK, under Tony Blair, and the US Democratic Party, under Bill Clinton, became enthusiastic promoters of the neo-liberal political agenda.
Yet even as socially and culturally conservative rural voters and the urban working class felt increasingly alienated from center-left parties, they did not necessarily feel comfortable with center-right, pro-business parties. For a long time, the US Republican elite guarded, at least by word of mouth, the ideas of white working-class voters who did not have college degrees, promoting racial fears and “Christian values.” But once elected, these “country club Republicans” tended to redirect their attention to business as usual.
Many working class voters then felt betrayed both by the left – which for them had ceased to represent their economic interests and despised their social attitudes – and by the right, which paid them no attention when they came to power.
Both Trump and Macron seized that opportunity. Trump took over the Republican Party and turned it into a populist cult, Macron dynamited the center-left and center-right French parties and took his place. Both promised that only they could solve the problems of their countries, as if they were current absolutist monarchs.
But Macron has a problem: Le Pen and Trump grew up in Paris and New York, respectively, in families much richer than theirs, but they share and understand the resentment of those who hate educated elites. Although Macron hails from the French provincial middle class, he has risen into the upper class and adopted the superior attitudes of the old political parties of the left and right that he helped to destroy.
That is why it depends on the vote of the educated and older people who live in the big cities. The former French working class supports the extreme left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Le Pen. Rural voters prefer Le Pen. And the young people are on the extreme left… or they don’t vote.
We should be relieved that there were enough French voters to avert disaster, but Macron is right to temper the sense of triumph and declare his obligation to those who disagree with his policies but voted for him anyway. Many French voters feel abandoned and Macron must take his interests seriously. After all, the liberal center cannot depend on urban elites alone. Let’s hope American Democrats are paying attention.
He is the author of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.
Copyright: Project Syndicate 1995 – 2022