The rise of populism is a serious warning for Paris and the rest of Europe
The resignation of French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and his replacement by Interior Minister Manuel Valls is the inevitable consequence – though not the only one, no doubt – of municipal elections that carried enormous political weight, and have seen the Socialist Party (PS), touch bottom, dragged down by the unpopularity of the government.
The second round of voting confirmed and even increased the trend seen in the first, which took place last week, to the point of offering up historic results. The unprecedentedly resounding defeat of the Socialists has been accompanied by the equally unprecedented rise of the National Front at the local level and the surprising victory of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), which is used to losing on municipal terrain.
The PS lost control of 155 towns and cities of more than 10,000 inhabitants – some of them traditional Socialist bastions – the UMP and its centrist allies gained 147 councils and Marine Le Pen’s troops debuted with 11 mayors and over 1,000 councilors. All of this less than two months away from the European elections.
Big crises normally provide excellent opportunities for change, as long as the diagnosis doesn’t miss the mark. In the ranks of the left, the catastrophe is being blamed on the “neoliberal turn” of President François Hollande, who in January put forward a Responsibility Pact to boost companies’ productivity and reduce the enormous levels of public spending (the state puts it at 57 percent of GDP).
But if the French people are reproaching the president for anything, it is his lack of definition and the inefficiency of his Cabinet. The economy is foundering, unemployment is reaching record levels and the deficit target remains unfulfilled at the same time as the tax burden is sending investors running and worrying the middle classes. Hollande’s change of direction pointed to the modernization of an economy too held up by interventionism and the doubts still persist over what is spurring him to push it through – as his right-wing predecessors discovered: changing direction implies a large dose of courage, pedagogy and fatigue. In this sense, the naming of Manuel Valls, a pragmatic man removed from sectarianism, looks like an appropriate gesture.
The National Front voters are not extra-terrestrials: they are made up of French people from all sections of society, immigrants included. The rise of support for Le Pen, like that for other populist movements on both the right and left in Europe, denotes a deep unease that cannot be resolved by condemnation, outrage or containment. Marine Le Pen has shown signs of intelligence and good instinct. Her protectionist message, anti-liberal and anti-European, appeals to people’s fears. The best way of combating it is to address the anxieties in society and tackle the problems – unemployment, insecurity and integration – with realism and good sense.