On Sunday 7 May 2017, French voters elected, with a landslide, Emmanuel Macron as the country’s new leader, ending Marine Le Pen’s bid for the presidency. This has been a unique election in that neither candidate hails from France’s two main parties, which both failed to advance their candidates to the run-off.
Macron is a liberal, economically and socially. Educated in a French-equivalent Ivy League institution, he started his career in the civil service, before leaving for a stint as an investment banker, and was then appointed economy minister by President Hollande. His track record as economy minister includes implementing the Loi Macron (Macron Act), a series of measures aimed at injecting flexibility into the French labour market, cutting bureaucratic red tape, and promoting competition. He also defends that protection for those facing economic difficulties must be a complement to economic flexibility. Macron is backed by 40 of France’s top economists, including former Harvard economics professor Philippe Aghion, a proponent of Denmark’s “flexicurity” model, who played a key role in inspiring Macron’s economic vision.
His campaign opponent, Marine Le Pen, has long been a key figure in her party, the National Front, and has held several political posts during the last 20 years. During the weeks preceding the vote, she had been heralded by some conservatives across the UK, the US and Australia as a solution to the plights that France, like other Western nations, face. Le Pen can shake up the status quo, the logic goes, as she is not an establishment candidate. She can be the face of an outspoken conservatism. Her relative novelty to English speakers and the fact that Trump has already broken past political conventions may explain the appeal Le Pen has for some conservatives. As French-speaking economists, we are both knowledgeable of the French political debate and have first-hand, untranslated access to Le Pen-related information. We were surprised to see the support she received from English-speaking conservative-leaning political commentators. The values Le Pen stands for are light-years away from the values of Anglo-Saxon conservatives, including personal liberty, small government, private property, and entrepreneurship. Put simply: conservatives, she is not one of yours. French expatriates have said as much, loud and clear, when an overwhelming majority of them chose Macron over Le Pen in the second round run-off (for example, in Australia, Macron beat Le Pen by a margin of 89% to a meagre 11%).
First, Le Pen’s economic plan is anything but liberal economically. It is most accurately described as socialist. Her program centres on outright dismissal of free trade deals, including deals with Australia and New Zealand, “economic patriotism”, and “intelligent protectionism”. Her state-assisted “re-industrialization” would have required heavy-handed interventions of many types, such as nationalising some companies. Le Pen also advocated for the preferential treatment of French businesses for taxpayer-funded government contracts, as long as they charge prices that are “reasonably” higher than non-French businesses would. What happens to economic efficiency, or how much is “reasonable”, are anyone’s guess. Some of the campaign promises are downright outlandish, such as fighting the “financialisation” of professional sport. You would be forgiven for thinking these campaign promises are those of a mid 20th-century left-wing populist party.
Le Pen and FN also openly practice a brand of ethnic politics that should be a concern to all citizens. White European ethnicity is marketed as part and parcel of French national identity; for example, the FNJ (FN’s youth organisation) prominently displays the self-explanatory motto “100% Front National, 0% Migrants” on its webpage. Her campaign proposed to revoke birthright citizenship, discard actual facts and organize the history curriculum in schools into a “national narrative” designed to exalt patriotism, and suppress language diversity in schools and universities. The FN also has a long history of Holocaust denial by everyday members and senior figures, including denials of the existence of gas chambers in Auschwitz. Mere days before the election, Marine Le Pen denied the well-documented fact that French authorities rounded up Jews for deportation into Nazi death camps. And the party’s interim president had to resign as past Holocaust denial remarks were uncovered.
Nowadays, Le Pen’s weapon of choice in identity politics is Islam-related fear mongering. To be sure, fundamentalism is a challenge in many societies; no country is exempt. Macron proposes a strong secular state which respects freedom of religion but stands firm in the face of any attempt to impose the values of any religious group on others. Le Pen, on the other hand, proposes legislation banning the use of so-called ostentatious religious symbols in public, which explicitly applies to employees at private businesses. In Le Pen’s France, fellow citizens who wish to wear a cross, a yarmulke, a hijab, or any other religious symbols, are to be excluded from the workplace. Political interference into what citizens can and cannot wear has not historically been associated with the respect for civil liberties which characterise Anglo-Saxon society.
This authoritarian mindset runs evens deeper. Like Erdogan in Turkey and Putin in Russia, Le Pen shows worrying signs of contempt for the institutions of the French Republic. France has a bicameral legislature; as recently as 2013, Le Pen pledged to strip parliament from its law-making duties, transfer them to the people, and discussed abolishing the senate. What would we make of these claims if they had been uttered by any American, British or Australian politician?
Le Pen also championed an isolationist foreign policy, proposing to leave the European Union and return to a romanticized sovereign nation-state. This is a dangerous illusion. We live in an era with many global problems, which require global solutions. Who can believe that, in the 21st century, small European countries will be better able to defend their economic interests and their values by being divided? Small and contiguous European countries are more likely to tackle terrorism threats by reinforcing the cooperation between their intelligence services and pooling some of them to benefit from economies of scale. World inequalities in standards of living are creating a migration pressure over European countries. Who can think that putting a border around each European country will work to regulate immigration? Countries at the external borders of Europe like Greece and Italy don’t have the resources to pay for Europe’s border protection and, in practice, don’t have the incentive to do so given that most migrants aim to go to richer countries such as France and Germany. If reducing economic migration is the end objective, then reinforcing the current European borders will be much more effective than breaking up the EU into small countries each defending their borders on their own. Furthermore, wars such as the one in Syria and Libya have created an unprecedented number of people in need of refuge; a coordinated European response is necessary in this respect too.
Le Pen-style isolationism, which is alive and well in many industrialized countries, would severely weaken the EU and its capacity to deal with these and many other global issues. More fundamentally, it would leave European countries even more divided than ever, unable to stand for their social model and cultural values, in a world were undemocratic powers such as Russia and China would find easier to expand their influence.
Notes. The campaign promises we discuss are available at https://www.marine2017.fr/programme/ (see promises number 27, 34, 35, 37, 96, 97, 101, 117, 121, 127). We also refer to the campaign pamphlet entitled “Terrorisme Islamiste: Protegeons les Francais”, which is available on Le Pen’s website as well.
Lionel Page is a professor of economics at QUT. Ahmed Skali is an Early Career Development Fellow at RMIT University.