France: When democracy is a game of Russian roulette

In the final article of his three-part series, Marwan Bishara writes on why France’s newly re-elected president should focus on providing French workers the assurances they deserve in the next five years.

Marine Le Pen, French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party candidate for the 2022 French presidential election, waves to supporters as she leaves after a visit in Berck-sur-Mer on the last day of campaigning, ahead of the second round of the presidential election.
Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party surpassed 40 percent of the vote [File: Yves Herman/Reuters]

Democracy has become a game of Russian roulette. Once considered a routine exercise of peoples’ sovereign right, free elections have now become a dangerous game of chance, constantly risking anti-liberal, anti-democratic power grab.

After a decade of unprecedented post-Cold War expansion, liberal democracy has come under assault by populist and reactionary forces in the past couple of decades, from the advent of Vladimir Putin in 2000 to the rise of Donald Trump in 2016 and the surge of the far right on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the process, a growing number of states, like Hungary, Turkey, Austria, India and Brazil, among others, have taken a turn towards charismatic authoritarianism and populist illiberalism.

And this month, many feared France would follow suit.

But fortunately, France’s liberal democracy has survived the presidential election, drawing a huge sigh of relief across much of Europe. Well, for now at least, or until next time or the time after that, when the far right may finally “smash the glass ceiling”, with dangerous implications for the continent and beyond.

A sigh of relief is, by definition, a sign of distress; the bigger the sigh the greater the distress.

And the French, like the citizens of other modern democracies, are so utterly distressed nowadays, that they entertained the reckless idea of electing a far-right leader to the constitutionally powerful presidency.

Although the reasons for distress and anguish may be tangible, such as job insecurity and constant social change, life in modern societies tends to be distressing regardless of the circumstance, pushing many to seek solace in tradition, religion and in a mythical past of glorious harmony.

Dissatisfied with the status quo and the establishment parties, more than a third of the eligible French voters did not cast a ballot, or voted blank, and two of five of those who voted shamelessly opted for the anti-European, anti-liberal, anti-Muslim, not to say neo-fascist, Marine Le Pen as president.

This is astounding. And it is also inexcusable.

Astounding, because despite the support of the entire French and European establishments, as well as most political parties and the financial elites, Macron mustered relatively fewer votes than any president since 1965, or a mere 37.9 percent of the electorate.

Inexcusable, because the French should know better than to blame immigrants and minorities for their problems. Even if explicable, considering the economic uncertainty and national malaise, it is surely not justifiable.

This is paramount because the French have been both trendsetter and net-winner in Europe and the Mediterranean.

Along with the Germans, the French have united the continent like never before in recent decades, rendering the European Union the most peaceful, prosperous, liberal and democratic bloc in the world.

And in the process, France has recovered much of its international prestige lost in the world wars, watching as its geopolitical influence grew and multiplied along with EU enlargement and consolidation.

And since the pandemic and its financial woes, France has fared better economically than most European nations, and the EU has done better than most other regions.

That’s a win-win equation by any definition. All of which adds more stakes to the mystery.

Why does a relatively powerful, prosperous and productive nation even entertain the idea of a retrograde neo-fascist ruler? Why add meanness and misery to the country’s stress and struggle, when more democratic and more practical solutions are at hand?

Clearly, France’s problems are not economic or “European” per se; they are especially political: the utter collapse of the jaded centre-right and the centre-left parties, and the failure of Macron’s centrism to stem the surge of the far right.

Le Pen likes to assert that France has to choose between patriotism and internationalism or between nationalism and liberalism. But that’s a farcical juxtaposition that presents a false choice.

The French could be both nationalist and internationalist, patriots and liberals. They could be French, European, Western and Mediterranean, of any religion or of no religion. They could also stand against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and for Muslim and other minority rights.

They could or should be patriots without being nativist white racists. Patriotism is the love of one’s own country, not the obsession with its mythical past.

“Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” is more than a motto, more than a heritage; it is France’s greatest contribution to modernity; one that has been written into its constitution and therefore must be protected at home before it is promoted abroad.

But Le Pen, who prefers France’s imperial past to its republican constitution, has succeeded where Macron has largely failed, namely to speak to people’s fears, albeit by pledging to “make France great again” through lofty promises she cannot keep and issuing cheques she couldn’t cash as president.

In reality, there is a limit to what any president can or should do for his or her country in today’s globalised world, where capital, trade and investment reign supreme. No less in France, where the public sector is so dominant that any further state intervention is sure to sacrifice productivity and competition at the altar of political expediency.

But Macron made pledges to the rich while making demands on the working class, offering tax cuts and other incentives to the fortunate while asking the less fortunate to work more for less.

That is not fair. Trickle-down economics has long been discredited as a way to create and spread wealth and prosperity, when in fact it has deepened inequality.

The French may work fewer hours than certain advanced economies, but they are more productive than most, ranking either above or between the United States and Germany.

To be clear, the French are not bitter about what they do not have and did not earn; they are angry about potentially losing what they do have in terms of hard-earned economic security and social protection.

It is the president’s role and responsibility to provide French workers the assurances they deserve in the next five years, no less for having won a second term with their support.

Free of political pressure, Macron must do right by all his compatriots during his second term in office. Otherwise, France will once again stand in confusion with a gun to its head come 2027, especially if America decides in 2024 to take its chances once again with a vengeful Trump presidency.

If France goes rogue, eventually, so will Europe.