France’s presidential election has offered a glimpse of Europe in revolutionary mood. Yet it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that the Fifth Republic is poised to elect a revolutionary president.
European democracy has a new organising assumption. Citizens may still change their leaders from time to time, but only on the clear understanding that elections do not herald a change of direction. Left or right, inside or outside the euro, ruling elites are worshipping at the altar of austerity.
Governments are permitted a tilt here, or a shading of emphasis there. None dares challenge the catechism of fiscal rectitude.
The sense of futility this engenders gave the first round of France’s presidential election its revolutionary flavour. That nearly a fifth of voters backed Marine Le Pen’s National Front and more than a 10th Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s (hard) Left Front spoke to the depth of national frustration. Here was a salutary reminder, if one were needed, of the way populism and xenophobia flourish during times of depression.
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The French are not alone. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán heads a rightwing nationalist government that has been trampling on the rule of law in an effort to establish permanent political hegemony. The populist right is on the rise in the smaller countries of northern Europe, witness the self-styled True Finns and Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party. In the Netherlands and elsewhere, euroscepticism has also become the banner of the hard left.
Yet the choice for France in this weekend’s presidential run-off is a more familiar one, in which the rhetoric of the campaign belies the narrowness of the policy choice.
The Socialist party leader François Hollande is a small “c” conservative who wants to reclaim Europe’s postwar social market model. Nicolas Sarkozy’s pitch for a second term is also imbued with nostalgia. Mr Sarkozy promises to restore France to the greatness it knew in the days of De Gaulle. The striking impression left by this week’s televised debate between the two candidates was one of deep personal animus rather than of great policy chasms. […]
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