Letter from France - Le Déluge

Alan Kirman looks at the role of easy access to information in shaping radical political changes in the US and Europe.

It would be difficult to imagine a worse year than 2016. France decided to impose a state of emergency after the terrorist attacks at the end of 2015 and, since then, the train stations and other public places have seen the appearance of quite heavily armed soldiers. Fear is a powerful motivator, and given the lack of popular appreciation of Hollande’s policies it has been widely suggested that the maintenance of the state of emergency was a way of distracting attention from the country’s other domestic problems. The famous inversion of the unemployment curve on which Hollande staked his political future, has only recently shown timid signs of appearing and Hollande finally threw in the sponge having fallen to 4 per cent in the approval ratings, and decided not to run for a second term as president. His young ex-minister for the economy Emmanuel Macron had already quit the government at the end of the summer and has set up a new party, which for want of a better term, could be described as Blairite. All the emphasis is on efficiency and competitiveness, which, in a country, which has already suffered from the austerity hawks may not go down well. Macron made a trip to New York recently, to meet Joe Stiglitz, ostensibly to discuss how to combat tax havens, but given the contrast between Macron’s 20th century economics and some of the Stiglitz macroeconomic proposals one can only hope that he may have been given food for thought.

The French Presidency
Now that the presidential election has been thrown open, the candidates from the ‘right’ (and I will come back to the question as to whether such a term is meaningful), may be asking themselves whether they would not have preferred to have Francois Hollande as their opponent. After a courteous but vicious primary campaign, Sarkozy the former president was eliminated and somewhat surprisingly, Francois Fillon, his ex-prime minister became the official candidate for the ‘Republicains’. He defeated Alain Juppé the former minister for foreign affairs who had been favourite up till the last minute. Fillon has the appearance and behavior of an undertaker, constantly explaining to his clients how to live through the difficult experience they are faced with and has proposed a programme with substantial expenditure cuts which could be described as ‘Thatcherite’. When he was minister of education he reduced the number of teachers by 80,000. His conviction which is erroneous in my view, is that by moving to the right he can pick up some of those who might otherwise vote for Marine Le Pen.

The hole left by Hollande on the left has a number of candidates poised to fill it and in particular Manuel Valls who has just resigned as prime minister. He too, thinks that popular opinion in France has moved to the right and taken a tougher stance on immigration and on security than Hollande. How he will justify this stance to those who identify themselves with the left remains to be seen. To make sure that the left do not abandon him in the presidential election he has now taken positions on economic matters which he hopes will appeal to what he sees as that part of the political spectrum. The only problem with this is that when he participated in the previous primaries he took economic positions diametrically opposed to those he now claims to hold. At that time he wanted to abolish the 35 hour week and slim down the public sector. However, maybe amnesia is as powerful as myopia in the public.

Brexit and Trump: could it happen here?
But if France seems to be in a bit of a political mess, let’s just consider the cases of the UK, the US and Italy. The vote for Brexit was received with disbelief and some relief here. The Far Right were jubilant and others were delighted to see just how badly a country could prepare itself for such a happening. Posing a more or less meaningless question to a population which was ill informed and then deciding on the future of that country on a simple majority vote smacked of genuine incompetence. Worse, none of the Brexit supporters had any sort of plan for what to do in case of victory and the British version of Trump, Boris Johnson, was rapidly thrown overboard by the Tories, to join Farage, ‘mission accomplished’ in the water. The path to Brexit is far from clear and from this side of the channel it looks as if there is nothing to negotiate. Any agreement beyond a simple exit would have to be approved by all the nations of the EU and they are highly unlikely to give any ground on the free movement of labour, opposition to which is the cornerstone of the Brexit supporters’ position. How all of this will pan out is anyone’s guess but the British conviction that the UK is in a strong negotiating position seems delusory.

Yet all of this pales into insignificance when compared to the election in the US! Trump’s election was yet another boost for Marine Le Pen, ‘it could happen here too’. Yet the fact that someone who seems to have no recommendable qualities, and has been denigrated by all the mainstream Republican candidates could have become the next president of the US suggests that something important is wrong with the models of voting and the political economy, on the back of which, a number of economists made a living. ‘He heard a voice that we did not hear’ said Paul Ryan who, despite everything he said earlier, has now become a Trump follower. How Trump heard that voice is not clear and how he will answer it is even less clear, for since the election he has been isolated in his quarters in the Trump Tower, apparently watching Fox News and tweeting in response to the various news items and upsetting China by receiving a phone call from the Taiwanese leader.

The end of ‘right’ and ‘left?
What then has been happening? One explanation is that our model of people nicely lined up along a line from left to right seems more than ever irrelevant. Those who have read what I have said above will notice that I continue to use the, now more or less meaningless terms ‘right’ and ‘left’! An old idea was that the easy access to so many sources of information would lead to a harmonization of opinion with the centre and extremes well defined. In fact, recent work has suggested that just the opposite may happen. As individuals focus on one source of regular information, they continue to communicate with those around them, many of whom share their opinions, creating a reinforcement effect and clusters of people with a very specific axe to grind. What it is that some of these clusters may have in common is something that is essential knowledge for he or she who wishes to extend their voting base. It is those voices that Ryan did not hear and that Marine Le Pen thinks she hears. Anger and fear seem to be common denominators of the appeal of Trump and Le Pen. Fear is channeled into racism and currently hostility to Islam, and anger often is associated with the feeling of exclusion despite the apparently satisfactory unemployment figures in the US, for example. As a taxi driver in New York said to me in November, ‘what the politicians don’t seem to get is that most people would be very happy to have a steady job and not to be told that if they lose their current one they can easily find another one’.

But in an era where the benefits of liberalizing markets and unfettered globalization have been systematically advanced, that particular voice, which may be that of many, has not been heard by the ‘mainstream’ politicians. Yet, in France, the Front National seems to have cottoned on and, as a result, has economic policies to what we would have thought of as to the left, if that phrase makes any sense now, of almost all of its adversaries. These policies emphasise redistribution and an assault on ‘the elite’. They are also, however, anti-European, and anti-immigrant, reflecting the real origins of the party. For those who might be convinced that this party has now become a ‘normal and respectable’ political party it is worth looking at the actions taken by those of its members who have been elected to local government posts, with, for example, the cancellation of the lease for offices for Amnesty International considered as too politically engaged. Add to this the recent, somewhat inhuman, declaration by Marine Le Pen that she is opposed to providing schooling for the children of immigrants. This together with her expressions of admiration for Putin, leaves those of us who still remember, with a discouraging impression of ‘déjà vu’.

An interesting analysis of what has been happening in France is to be found in Le Crepuscule de la France d'en Haut, (which can be loosely translated as ‘the twilight of the French upper class’), by Christophe Guilluy. His basic argument is that there is an ‘enlightened’ and ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie which is in favour of ethnic and social diversity and which supported the policies of the elite such as globalization and the liberalization of markets. These people have been concentrated in certain cities and regions and have developed ideas and opinions which are orthogonal to those of many French people who have not benefited from the results of globalization and in many cases have suffered from them. Indeed, the majority of French people live outside the 14 or 15 cities where such policies have had beneficial effects and the time has come, it is argued, for them to rise up and that is what they are doing! Again, the way in which the parties have evolved and the capacity of the social media to transmit and deform information have given a sense of empowerment to people who, before, were simply left behind.

Yet another blow to the stability of Europe came with the defeat of the referendum on the constitutional reform proposed by our neighbor Matteo Renzi. Ostensibly this reform would have facilitated the passage of legislation and diminished the power of the Italian Senate but it was portrayed as a plebiscite for Renzi and a number of those who had tried ‘reforming’ Italy in the past like Mario Monti predictably came out against the reforms. The way in which Renzi came to power and the way he handles power made the reform a very shaky bet indeed and one wonders what led him to take it. Now Beppe Grillo and his followers are in a strong position but they do not seem to have any discernible policies. So, yet again a group of people who have somehow garnered popular support from the angry and the fearful now find themselves in a position where they have no idea as to what they should do if they actually came to power. The consequences of that are daily becoming clearer in the U.S and in the UK. As somebody observed some time ago ‘indignation is not enough’.

In addition, Angela Merkel, whose positions on economic policies for Europe and particularly for the Southern countries have been strongly criticized, took a courageous and principled stand on immigration, and this seems to have had a very negative effect on her popularity. Indeed the rise of the populist and nationalist party in Germany is another disquieting sign of the political evolution in Europe. The reaction to the arrival of a very large number of refugees particularly from Syria was overwhelmingly generous and welcoming. How, in such a short space of time has it become so negative? Here again one has to wonder about the extent to which news items such as the reports of assaults by ‘Islamic’ individuals in Cologne at the New Year had to do with this and to what extent these reports reflected reality. A casual inspection of the sites which have made these events a centerpiece reveals that they have a very strong political and ideological bias. The same applies in France, so it seems that we are witnessing a change in the way in which people focus their attention and form their opinions with a decrease in the influence of what were once the standard sources of information. The attention paid to the totally artificial ‘burkini’ scandal, in France is a case in point.

One way to finish this letter would simply be to express the pious hope that next year will be better! However, the current unwinding of a number of social and economic arrangements in Europe seems to me to be characteristic of one of those endogenous crises through which all complex adaptive systems pass, and such systems are extremely difficult to predict. In any event let’s be optimistic and I wish a Bonne Année to all the readers of this letter.

From issue no. 176, January 2017, pp. 3-4 and 15.

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