As the French go to the polls Sunday to elect their new president, Europe and beyond it will be watching with some trepidation.
An upset victory by the hard-right finalist Marine Le Pen could cast a thick shadow of doubt over the future of the European Union at a time it is trying to absorb the shock of “Brexit”. In view of Ms. Le Pen’s ties to Moscow, such a dramatic turn of events would also rattle NATO at a time Russia is exerting proximity pressure on the outer fringes of the alliance.
With 48 hours to go to polling day, conventional wisdom would have us believe that a Le Pen victory is at best a remote possibility and that Emmanuel Macron, the surprise star of this presidential season, will walk his way into the Elysees Palace.
However, even if that optimistic version of events comes to pass, the election should be regarded as a stern warning to French democracy. This was the first time that the extreme ends of French politics collected almost half of all votes cast in the first round of presidential election. In 1969 the Communist standard-bearer Jacques Duclos won almost a quarter of the votes. This time Le Pen, Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, and Francois Asselineau, standard-bearers for the hard-right, together collected almost 27 per cent.
Add to that the 23 per cent won by hard-left candidates Jean-Luc Melanchon, the Trotskyite Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou of the News Anti-Capitalist Party (NAP) and you have almost half of the voters.
Taken together, the votes of both the hard right and the hard left indicate a rejection of the status quo with its well established dramatic personae and increasingly contested rules. The rejection may appear even wider than that if we assume that a good part of Macron’s electorate was also rejecting the status quo by choosing him a relative newcomer to French politics.
There will be cause for even more concern if we remember that Francois Fillon, the unsuccessful champion of the classical right who ended up with 18 per cent of the votes, had also borrowed some of the themes of the rejectionists, notably by adopting a pro-Russian posture on foreign policy.
Some analysts tend to dismiss all that as an outburst of protest votes, a passing thunderstorm in otherwise calm summer day. However, even if that were the case in any genuine democracy a protest vote is as valid as any other vote. And one function of all elections is to reflect the public’s disaffection, whether justified or not, with the status quo.
Other analysts point to the fact that most of the “extreme” voters, like those who clinched the victory in “Brexit”, are less educated, less informed, less well-off, and “less” in many other domains. However, a vote by a “less” voter counts as much as one cast by “more” one.
Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s votes at least three lessons could be drawn from this year’s presidential contest.
The first is that the mainstream parties, the Socialists and the Gaullists under different labels, have failed to convince the electorate that they could effectively address its concerns, justified or not. Together the two ended up with just under a quarter of the votes, their lowest score ever. Some analysts believe that the Socialist Party or even the Gaullist as well, will fade into oblivion. I don’t think that will happen. They represent the two ideologies that, in different variations, have dominated European politics for the past two centuries.
The second lesson is that, caught in their narrow ideological straitjackets, the two extremes are incapable of expanding their imagination beyond certain limits and thus could not be expected to rectify the wrongs they have highlighted.
The French hard-right of which Ms. Le Pen is the current face has never been able to grow beyond the fringes of French politics. In its various epiphanies, including Action Francaise, Algerie Francaises, the Organization of the Secret Army (OAS), or even the Boulangeriste and Poujadiste versions never morphed into mainstream ideologies. It could be argued that a version of it briefly formed the government during Marshall Petain’s rule under German suzerainty between 1940 and 1944.
As for the hard-left, for decades, it owed part of its power to solid support from the Soviet Union. Even fringe leftist groups such as Action Directe and other terrorist outfits of the left received ideological, if not material, nourishment, from Moscow.
The hard-right and the hard-left cannot be scripted out of French political life and, this time at least, may play a useful role by sounding the alarm about the failures, the weaknesses, and the structural defects of French democracy in its present shape.
Finally, the third lesson, one hopes, is that French democracy could emerge from its current turmoil stronger than before. This is not a Nietzschean boast. The current exercise shows that the democratic system can include the most extreme groups even to the point of welcoming them to the threshold of power.
The outburst of political extremes, from the xenophobic right to the populist left, has not been limited to France but has been a challenge to European democracy as a whole. Everywhere, European democracy has been able to contain those extremes, at times even putting their energies to use in the service of overdue reforms.
In Greece SYRIZA, a hard-left outfit had started as champion of the fight against the European Union. It is now EU’s local standard-bearer. In Spain, PODEMOS, has hit the outer limits of radicalism and is on the way to developing into a mainstream party of the left. In Austria, the hard-right presidential candidate reached the final round but was stopped by another outsider cast as the “Green” candidate. In Holland, Geert Wilders’ party appears to have realized its maximum electoral potential, an experience that seems likely to be repeated in Sweden and Denmark as well. In Italy, the system has already absorbed the shock of the extreme rejectionists led by the comedian Bepe Grillo.
In all those other European nations the extremes have managed to rock the boat but not to capsize it. Let’s see if the same happens in France on Sunday.