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Talking Policy: Sheri Berman on the French Election

As the final round of the French presidential election between Marine Le Pen of the National Front and Emmanuel Macron of En Marche approaches, many are curious as to how the results will reflect wider political trends in Europe and beyond. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University has written on political history, democracy, and globalization in 20th-century Europe. World Policy Journal spoke with Berman, who reflected on what makes current European politics particular to the region and which historical lessons we may look to today to improve Europe’s economic and social conditions.  

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: How do you think the outcome of the French election will affect European politics in a broader sense?

SHERI BERMAN: Obviously, the French election is the one to watch because it is so important and so essential to the European project. All of the polls have Marine Le Pen losing because of Republican solidarity barring any sort of black swan event. So she won't win, but we should look beyond the outcome of the elections at the underlying trends that have already been revealed and will surely continue through the second round. The current polls have Emmanuel Macron winning by something like 20 percent, which is a huge electoral margin when you think about how elections turn out in other countries. However, that would end up giving Le Pen close to 40 percent of the vote, which would be a huge improvement on anything the National Front ever got in previous elections. This would reflect a dramatic, continued increase in the National Front fold. The amount she got in the first round already is the best result for the National Front, ever. And if Le Pen ends up getting close to 40 percent, it'll also reflect the fact that even though Republican solidarity holds up—that is to say that everyone except Jean-Luc Melenchon has come out to support Macron—it means that there's still going to be a significant amount of defection at the voting level.

The problem results when we look at elections as a snapshot—because we all have so many things we're paying attention to, we tend to just see the outcome. Not only did Le Pen not come in first, but she also came in slightly behind Macron. But again, all of the polls have her handily losing in her second round. That's what we see, and that's important. On the other hand, perhaps we're not as cognizant of some really disturbing underlying trends. What we're seeing is a willingness to support political extremes, particularly the populist right in Europe, and that's obviously both a reflection of larger dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire for radical change. These are disturbing trends that we shouldn't discount just because the election results come out in a particular way.

WPJ: When people hear that the polls predict Le Pen’s loss, many Americans might think back to President Trump's election and believe the polls are meaningless. What makes the French elections different?

SB: First of all, you have to remember that there were lots of political parties in the first round of the French elections, rather than a fragmentation of the electorate. And even though we have a two-candidate runoff in the second round, it's still reflected in what's going to happen with the votes. François Fillon represented the traditional right-wing party in the first round, and he was actually an unusual candidate because he represents a socially conservative type of politician that's not typical in the European and French context but was nevertheless prominent in this election. Fillon’s supporters will mostly throw their support to Macron, whereas in the United States, those people probably would have voted for Trump. We know that Republican partisanship was a huge—perhaps the most important—predictor of voting in this last U.S. election. The difference is that in Europe, in many political systems, we still see a desire to quarantine the radical right and a desire to keep the other parties in control of political power.

WPJ: A lot of people are very uneasy about the current state of affairs in Europe, especially regarding the French elections. From your perspective, are peoples’ worries justified or do you think the popularity of these far-right, populist parties will die down?

SB: I think there are very significant problems, and we should see the populists of the far right as well as the populists of the far left, like Mélenchon, as reflections of dissatisfaction—that is to say, reflections of problems that are not being solved by traditional parties. And as in the United States, those problems basically fall into two categories: economic and social. The manifestations of these problems vary across national contexts. But these two categories are the big ones.

In terms of economics, France has stagnating growth and high unemployment, particularly among the youth. This is why, oddly, both the National Front and Mélenchon are parties of the youth, though we tend to think of supporters of far-right parties as mainly middle-aged and older people. But in France, because youth unemployment has been so high for so long, Le Pen’s supporters actually fall in this weird U-shape—both the younger and older generations. Mélenchon also gets a lot of support from young people. Besides stagnating growth and high unemployment, increasing economic inequality and rising economic insecurity are real concerns. And then you layer onto that the particularly terrible economic situations that some of Europe finds itself in, and it’s clear that these countries have legitimate economic problems. It is absolutely legitimate for people to be frustrated with the state of their economy, the prospects for their future and their children's future, the decline of the promises that were made in the post-World War II order of increasing growth, increasing equality, better life chances, etc.

The social problems are also legitimate, although the solutions that people have embraced are not. People see societies that are changing dramatically in ways they were not prepared to deal with. They're frustrated and they're concerned. This is a process that goes back to the 1960s and the cultural changes that started at that time in Europe—that also means what’s happened over the last decade with increased immigration and, most recently, with the refugee crisis. It also means open borders in Europe and people flowing in from different countries.

In the U.S., it's slightly different. There was also a cultural revolution in the 1960s. Even though Trump has put a dramatic emphasis on illegal immigration, what's really going on in the United States involves changes since the Civil Rights Movement. People had to recognize that there were minorities in the U.S. who were not satisfied with not being able to vote, not being politically mobilized, and not being culturally integrated. Again, you have a similar dramatic process of social change that's really disorienting for a lot of people.

It's this combination of economic and social problems, or social change, that's underlying a lot of the dissatisfaction and disruption on both continents. And until mainstream political parties and elites figure out better ways of dealing with it, you can expect these populist parties, especially on the right, to continue to flourish because they're offering simplistic and often unhelpful answers to these problems. But at the very least, they're responding to these fears and concerns in a direct way. I wouldn't expect them to disappear until the problems are better addressed.

WPJ: Europe has gone through a lot of political changes over the centuries, ranging from the early systems of feudalism and monarchy to fascism, socialism, communism, and now liberal democracy. Class struggle seems to be a recurring concern. How has this issue driven social and political change in Europe in the last century?

SB: That's a great question, albeit a huge one. One of the things that people are talking a lot about now is that traditional left-right distinctions are beginning to be transgressed. For the postwar period, these distinctions were the traditional voting and social cleavage. Now what we're seeing is something different. Interestingly enough, in France, both the National Front and Macron's En Marche Movement used or referred to the slogan "Neither right nor left"—they see themselves neither as the traditional right nor the traditional left. And that's true in the sense that both parties take elements from both the right and the left, though they embrace different elements and perform them in different combinations.

When we look back at European and Western history we have periodized it in a variety of ways: absolutism, feudalism, etc. People have called the three or four postwar decades after 1945 the heyday of the liberal order. What people are grasping at now is whether what we're seeing is not just the decline of that order, but also the rise of a new one. I would say that while that may be true and while we certainly have seen the decline of class voting in the traditional sense, we should not completely discount the importance of social class, neither in the specific realm of voting nor in the broader realm of how it structures political life.

So yes, working class votes are no longer going exclusively to the left. In fact, in many places like France, they're not even going mostly to the left anymore, but primarily to the populist right. But there's a still a block of voters there who are voting based not only, but still to a large degree, on economic issues. One of the things that Le Pen has done so well is convince working class voters, rural voters, and people who feel they've left behind by "globalization" that she is going to create or recreate an economy that works for them. It's a protectionist economy. It's an economy with a strong welfare state that's limited to the "real" French. She's recreated, in a warped way, many of the traditional appeals of the left. But she branded or refashioned them for the 21st century. The way you're going to protect these things or recreate these things is by excluding people who are not really French and therefore don't deserve these benefits from the French welfare state.

So there's still a working class out there, and it's still voting based on which parties are going to satisfy its economic interests. Again, I think that has been layered on more now than in the past, in addition to important social concerns. Economic voting has appeared, but it's been scrambled both by the fact that parties have moved around and by the rise of populist parties on the left and right that have taken over the appeals of older, traditional parties.

WPJ: Many European countries, in particular the U.K. and France, have had a love-hate relationship with immigrants throughout history. Have you noticed any patterns or connections between a population’s opinion on immigration and the prevalence of populism in a region?

SB: Here's a perfect example of where the social and the economic interact. The better the economy is doing, the less people are concerned about immigration. Why? Because you don't have issues like jobs and increasing inequality at the forefront of the political agenda. As long as there are enough jobs, as long as there's enough access to social services, as long as everybody has access to good housing, as long as social mobility is growing, people are less concerned about "others" coming in and taking way their opportunities, their jobs, their social services, etc.

We absolutely tend to see concerns about things like social change and immigration heightened when people feel like they're living in what's often called a zero-sum economy. That is to say, if I get something, you don't get it—or if you get it, I don't get it. A growing pie is much easier to divide up than a static or shrinking one. I think that while both the social and the economic are important issues and to some degree distinct, part of the reason why we've seen so much turmoil in the last 10 years or so is that they've been conflated or exaggerated by the financial crisis. You've had both the refugee crisis and dramatic economic problems. And that has heightened conflict overall. Immigration issues and issues about social and cultural change become even more heightened in times when people feel like they're engaged in a zero-sum game or competition with others. And if those "others" look different from them, talk differently from them, worship differently from them, then it's much easier to demonize them or to say that they're not deserving of the same opportunities and benefits.

WPJ: Why is it that many of the problems these voters complain about were caused by their own government or politicians, and yet somehow immigrants get blamed?

SB: Well, it's always easier to look for a scapegoat then to actually confront how complex the problems are and how difficult the solutions will be.

WPJ: How has Europe been able to overcome populism or fascism in the past and what lessons can we learn from them moving forward?

SB: Europe managed to recover from its greatest period of tragedy during the world wars in what has to be seen, in retrospect, as a pretty remarkable way. If someone had asked me in 1945 what the chances for stable, liberal democratic capitalism in Western Europe in general or in Germany in particular would be, I'm not really sure I would bet heavily on Europe making it. Its history was pretty grim at that point. Betting on stable democracy in a place like Germany or Spain would've been a really high risk then, too. But it worked, and it worked because a whole variety of things came together.

One of the most important things is this postwar order, which managed to combine continuous economic growth with increased social redistribution and a strong welfare state. This created a growing pie that had enough goodies to distribute to different classes. Where in the past, it was workers and capitalists—workers and employers—feeling like they were in a zero-sum game, it became a system where there are higher profits, higher wages, and social benefits. That combination of economic growth and increased redistribution—or increased equalization and growing social mobility—allowed for both social stability and democratic consolidation.

Obviously today’s capitalism has changed a lot since the 1950s and 60s, but there has to be some way to recreate that. There has to be some way to make people feel like they're living in a world where their prospects are rosy, where they're not in competition with their fellow citizens for jobs and benefits. And only under those kinds of situations can we avoid the social conflict and polarization that feed democratic disintegration. The lesson after 1945 is, yes, there can be stable democracy even in the seemingly most inhospitable environments—which Western Europe really was. But it requires a very special kind of political economy: one that recognizes the need for growth and also avoids social polarization and class conflict.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Yasmin Merchant]

[Photo courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet]

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