This last year or two have been like heroin for a political junkie like me. As an American expat living in the south of France among politically aware expats from around the world, Brexit, Trump, and Macron have been front and center to read about, to talk about, and now to write about. What better time to look back and look forward than at the beginning of a new year?
I don't pretend that these will be detailed analyses. Pick nits if you will. In fact, I invite discussion. Even dissent. My insights are free of charge and worth every penny.
Let's get to it. And let's start in France. Why France? Because of the three countries that I will be discussing, France is the one country that seems to have gotten it right. Who'd have thunk it?
The French hold a series of elections, regional government, Presidential, and National Assembly in that order. Each of the elections may be two-tiered. That is, if the candidate for a particular office does not receive 50%+1 of the vote, a runoff between the two top votegetters is held. Campaigning is strictly controlled. For instance, all campaigning must cease on the Friday before the Sunday voting and the publication of polling in the French press is forbidden on election day.
The regional elections way back in December of 2015 were truly extraordinary from this American's point of view. Why? Because the center-left Socialists and the center-right Republicans cooperated to prevent the anti-European, anti-immigration, far-right National Front from controlling a single one of France's 13 regions. How did they cooperate? The Socialists withdrew candidates with no chance to win in favor of their Republican rival.
OK. Stop. Take a deep breath. And think about that for a minute, you sophisticated American political operatives out there. In places where they had no hope of winning, Socialist candidates not only withdrew their names from consideration. They urged their followers to vote for the conservative Republicans in order to prevent a win by a surging, populist fringe. And it worked. Although the National Front took the most votes overall in the first round of the regional elections, they failed to end up with political control of a single one of the thirteen French regions.
But wait. It gets better.
Having received a record number of votes in the regionals, and with failed/corrupt/uninspiring candidates for President representing the major political parties, National Front leader Marine Le Pen's followers were charged up. There was a real chance that an anti-immigration, authoritarian, populist/nationalist might be elected President in 2017. (Sound familiar?) Enter Emmanuel Macron. An investment banker who joined the center-left Socialist government in early 2012, Macron worked his way into a Cabinet-level role and managed to institute several business-friendly reforms. But in 2016, he saw his chance, left the Socialist party, and formed En Marche!, the brand new political party that was to be the platform for his election as the youngest French President ever.
As is the case with any political party that is the child of a single politician, En Marche! defies easy categorization. Although supported by prominent centrists and even greens, Macron also committed to various workplace reforms that would eventually send the unions into the streets to protest. In shorthand, I'd say that Macron and therefore En Marche! are generally socially liberal and fiscally conservative. (Understand that by American standards, socially liberal in France is very liberal but fiscally conservative is far to the left of anything true American fiscal conservatives would recognize. My guess is that this sort of political philosophy is shared by a majority of Americans. They just don't have a political party that consistently espouses it.)
Macron proved a cagey politician, became the darling of the media, and eventually led the field in the first phase. He crushed National Front's Le Pen in the runoff. The turnout for the runoff was historically low at about 75%, probably because it was understood that Le Pen had no chance. By the time that the elections for the National Assembly rolled around, the wave was complete. En Marche! won a clear majority of seats in the French legislature without having to form any coalitions.
There are two lessons that I take away from the French elections as an American political observer.
The first is that the French understood in ways that Americans can't seem to wrap their heads around that love of country can and should have primacy over political loyalty, even over political philosophy. 60% of voters in the American 2016 Presidential election voted for a candidate other than Trump. That's a practically unprecedented rejection. Given a turnout below 60%, Trump received the vote of less than 25% of eligible voters. Yet Trump won. Why? Because Americans failed to understand the dangers of a Trump Presidency, underestimated the chances of a Trump victory, and so either stayed at home or voted for a candidate that had no chance of winning. Americans have no basis for pride in their electoral system given that result.
The second takeaway is that the Republican and the Democrat establishments had better keep their eyes open. The Tea Party movement has pulled the Republican Party far to the right. Progressives are similarly convinced that Democrats should move further left. Take heed. A new centrist party in France, less than two years old, swept into power on an irresistible wave fueled by contempt for a corrupt and unresponsive establishment and a desire for a centrist government. If it's true that the majority of Americans are centrist, the two major American political parties are moving in a way that invites a third party to fill the vacuum.
It couldn't happen in America, though. Right?