The French Have Way More Excuses for Their Crazy Election than We DidPhoto by Christopher Furlong Politics Features France
The west is afire with directionless revolution and France is no exception. Outsider candidates are taking over their respective parties. New political parties are being formed. One of the candidates is dogged by allegations of bigotry, corruption is the main reason not to support another. Third party types are getting more attention than before and there’s even a wily socialist system-bucker in the mix. Sound familiar?
All that is certain at this point: the status quo will no longer do. The establishment, in nearly every form, has been rejected. Current French president François Hollande is eligible for another term but declined the opportunity to run. His approval ratings are comically low. His Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, was defeated in the Socialist Party primary by underdog Benoît Hamon. Even right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy threw his name into the mix only to come up short in his primary as well.
These establishment stalwarts are being rejected for the same reason we Americans wound up with Trump at the helm. They aren’t providing effective or compelling answers to pressing existential problems. It should come as no surprise the country’s economic travails led to rising ethnic tensions. A sad fact of history is how readily worsening living standards lead many to blame outsiders or those they relegate to a position of “otherness”; in this, France and the US are disappointing bedfellows.
Under Hollande’s leadership, unemployment kept growing to a rate even worse than the country faced under the height of the global financial crisis in 2008. Currently, it sits at around 10%, meaning three million people are unemployed. It’s the seventh highest unemployment rate for a country in the EU; the UK and Germany’s unemployment rate is less than half of theirs.
This sort of unemployment rate is alarming but it’s important to note, at least as of 2015, France spent more of its GDP on its social safety net than literally any other country in the world. Basically, not every person amidst France’s three million unemployed is totally screwed. A lot are living decently on the dole. You can get up to three years of unemployment benefits if you’re over 50 and two years if you’re under 50. There’s a maximum payout of €6100 a month as a French resident. Your healthcare is covered by the government. But Houston, we have a problem.
This social safety net isn’t going to be much use if the French economy totally crashes. It’s starting to look more and more likely that will happen. When it comes to GDP, France is doing worse than Britain, Germany and the Eurozone as a whole despite the fact France took the smallest hit of the group during the financial crisis. The national debt is 99.1% of GDP. Hollande’s 75% supertax on people earning €1 million or more may have been reduced to 45% in early 2015 but its adverse effects on the economy are still felt.
Compounding all this is the fact it’s damn near impossible to fire a person in France. Obviously this is a positive for labor itself but it’s bad for the economy as a whole. Times are tough in France right now and companies can’t really lay off their workers despite it being economically necessary for them to do so in certain cases. Workplace protections are important but we’re not talking about frivolous firing here. We’re talking about French businesses not being able to effectively operate due to laws and taxes even Bernie Sanders supporters would think are maybe a little much, thus driving the country itself further into greater unemployment rates and debt. When Hollande’s government tried to ease regulations on workplace hiring and firing practices, the people didn’t take very kindly to it. Who can blame them?
Post financial crisis, France is in a worse place than most of the developed world. Their social safety net is commendable but it’s also on life support due to the same old establishmentarian, neoliberal and globalist-in-the-worst-ways economic policies. Their certainly in more of a snafu than the United States was in November. If we wound up with Trump with far less of an impetus toward a 180 degree change on political normalcy, it’s easy to see France going to Le Pen under these conditions as well.
That’s even more likely given French national security is also in a sorry, even tragic state as of late. France has been the victim of the west’s most high-profile and horrific terrorist attacks in recent years. 327 people were killed and 837 people were injured in Islamic terror attacks since January 2015. The country was rocked by the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the Paris attacks focusing on the Bataclan concert hall and the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice.
The wounds of such attacks are obviously still fresh and it’s easy to see how much harder they’re making discussions about immigration, refugees and French identity as whole. The rise of Islamic jihadism coincides with the worst refugee crisis since World War II and the French, like so many other westerners, are having a hard time figuring out the perfect balance point between caution and compassion. Having an extremely porous border isn’t really helping things either.
As of a 2010 census, Muslims made up 7.5% of the French population. That’s the largest percentage of Muslim people in any European union country. France itself has one of the most avowedly secular governments in the world. People are free to practice any religion they please but the state itself is hardline about purging any elements of religiosity from lawmaking. A ban on burqas and other face-covering Islamic garb was passed in 2010 with 335 yes votes and only one no vote. 27% of people polled in the country said they held an unfavorable view of Muslims. Ironically, just about the same percentage of Muslims in France reject the country’s secular laws. Go figure. Needless to say, it will be difficult for more hardline Islamic believers to find much middle ground with such a hardline secular state.
You don’t see many refugee camps in America but they’re becoming a mainstay of French society. Late last year, refugees shuffled out of Calais’ so-called “Jungle Camp” into northern France. These sorts of camps have everyone fired up. Some considered the living conditions for refugees deplorable. 45% of French citizens see the refugees as a serious threat to security and 70% disapprove of how the government is handling the refugee crisis.
It’s pretty easy to see why the French are fed up with business as usual. No matter where you land on the political spectrum, there’s something to be mad as hell about. Their economy is in bad shape, they’re nervous about more terrorist attacks and questions of what it means to be French are swirling around everyone’s ears. Globalization, mass migration and the rise of terror mark this as an even more unconventional time for their country than it is for ours. So it should come as no surprise this surprising era is yielding some surprising candidates.
In many ways, France is the country Donald Trump tried to convince Americans they were living in. Their economy is hanging by a thread, they are attacked by jihadists with a greater degree of frightening regularity and deadliness than we’ve been in the last few years and the refugee/migrant crisis is a much more material and pressing reality for them than it is for the US. When Trump says he inherited a mess, he’s full of it. If the future French president, no matter who they are, says they inherited a mess, they’d be understating it.