France, the great laboratory of modern politics, has buried the polarization between left and right that has defined the contemporary world.
The terms came into being after the French Revolution, when the National Assembly divided between the king’s supporters who sat on the president’s right facing the revolution’s backers who sat on his left.
But in the most unpredictable and shocking election in its recent history, France on Sunday voted to oust the traditional parties of left and right that have governed for decades.
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, who beat Republican and Socialist candidates, represent the contemporary defining movements of globalism and nationalism. They will go head to head in the election’s second round on May 7, which Macron is almost certain to win.
Both Macron, the centrist newcomer, and Le Pen, the National Front veteran, are populists in the sense defined by the Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau, namely that their path to power is not through established parties. The National Front is a heterogenous protest movement, while Macron’s electoral vehicle, En Marche! (“On the Move!”) was created only last year.
More than populists, however, both Macron and Le Pen represent a form of dégagisme, a term that fast caught on in the Arab spring after protesters in Tunisia called for the departure of the dictator Ben Ali by yelling dégage! (“clear out!”)
The philosophy was later refined by Belgian left wingers whose Manifeste du Dégagisme expounded the “theoretical, practical and concrete possibility of operating a change of political regime without pre-judging what to replace it by.”
Dégagisme has given voice to a deep-seated dissatisfaction with conventional political responses to today’s crises. Both Brexit and Donald Trump are Anglo-Saxon forms of dégagisme.
Unlike France they have been co-opted by existing Conservative and Republican parties, but they respond to the same perception that the real problems the nation faces are incapable of being addressed in the established parties’ narratives.
Those problems, of course, are linked to the pain of globalization, the technological transformation of the western economy that is producing unemployment and growing social divisions at the same time as mass immigration and Islamic terrorism.
In France, where 20 percent of industrial jobs have been lost in the past two decades, those changes have been felt very sharply. An underperforming economy, social conflict, the failure to integrate high numbers of immigrants, and a brutal series of attacks by ISIS have all served to create a sense of gloom.
High government spending has resulted in enviable healthcare and transport infrastructure, but excessive regulation and waste have acted as a brake on growth. Anti-global, anti-EU sentiment has risen sharply: almost half of voters on Sunday backed anti-EU candidates running in Sunday’s first-round elections, and Le Pen’s success in coming a narrow second reflects the popularity of her call to close the frontiers and protect the economy from foreign competition.
As the French bishops pointed out in their superb essay last year, Retrouver Le Sens de la Politique (‘Recovering the Sense of Politics’), globalization has both offered new space for innovation but it has also exposed deep fissures and placed France’s identity in doubt.
The question of meaning, they say, has been increasingly absent from politics, which has become managerial, concerned more with the protection of individual rights than with the common good. At the same time, political parties have lost their capacity to organize debates and policy-making processes, becoming little more than electoral machines.
Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen — who wants to leave the euro — all offer protectionist, nativist, responses to the crisis of globalization. But no one quite knows yet what this nationalist politics will look like, or whether it will even be possible.
The novelty in France is Macron, the one almost certain to win on May 7. He represents something new not just in France but in western politics: a liberal, globalist, yet anti-establishment platform.
A young millionaire technocrat former investment banker, he has spent time on both sides of the revolving government-business door of the French elite, yet has a rare reputation as an effective reformer.
His answer is not withdrawal behind borders, but a new, deeper engagement with the EU. He wants to modernize the economy, making globalization work for France. At just 39, he doesn’t bring the ideological baggage of either right or left.
Although brought up in a classically secular family, he chose to be baptized aged 12, inspired by the Jesuits who ran his Amiens school. But later he became “spiritual, not religious” in the manner of most French Catholics, only five percent of whom practise.
Yet he will now have many of the votes from practicing Catholics that went to center-right Republican François Fillon. Fillon’s journey to the Elysée Palace seemed certain until he was derailed by embezzlement charges and accusations that he created publicly funded non-jobs for his family members.
Fillon’s pledge to defend France’s Christian values and his opposition to same-sex marriage and adoption was in itself something of a revolution in secular France. Whatever else happens now, a Catholic political awakening — reflected in new reviews like Limite, which defines itself in terms of Pope Francis’s ‘integral ecology’ — is set to be, in some way, part of France’s new public scene.
The question now is whether Macron — who has promised to be a uniter — is capable of what the French bishops, and Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, see as the essential task of the craft of politics: To take competing and at times incompatible interests and seek to balance them in a new synthesis.
The task is not just to create a politics that musters the will and energy for necessary reforms. It is also to breathe life back into politics itself, creating a new narrative that allows France to recover its identity while at the same time remaining open to new people and ideas.
Macron’s task goes beyond the French borders, to the heart of the European Union, which has been reduced to a mercantilistic, technocratic enterprise that no longer engages its populations.
If he can breathe life back into the EU, and into European politics generally, there is every reason to be excited by the prospect of his presidency. But if he fails, and offers little more of the same, Europe will go the way of Brexit and the Front National.
Not for the first time, France must assume its role as the testing ground of western politics.