The Rise and Fall of Right-Wing Populism in France and Italy, New Yorker, May 28, 2014
The extraordinary success of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, in France, and of other right-wing, populist parties has, with good reason, been the main story of last weekend’s European Parliamentary elections. Running on an anti-euro, anti-immigration platform, Le Pen won a historic twenty-five per cent of the vote, handily outpolling France’s main conservative party, the U.M.P., which earned only twenty-one per cent, and trouncing the Socialist Party of President François Hollande, which received an alarmingly small fourteen per cent. But Sunday’s election also produced another surprising, historic result, which has received much less attention: in Italy, Matteo Renzi, of the Democratic Party, won forty-one per cent of the vote, the largest total ever for a left-of-center party in Italy, a curious countertrend on a day marked by the advance of the right.
Placed in juxtaposition, the result in Italy helps us to understand why the vote in France turned out as it did; the French election could serve as a sobering warning to Renzi about what may await him if he fails to live up to his promises.
Put simply, Renzi’s victory in Italy further highlights the distinctive failings of Hollande in France. Unlike Hollande, Renzi appears to grasp the urgency of the problems that his country is facing, and has acted in his first months in power to present a series of relatively far-reaching reforms to Italy’s dysfunctional political and economic system. Hollande, by contrast, has moved cautiously, with a series of half measures, often zigzagging with shifting poll numbers—first raising taxes, then lowering them, declaring war on finance, and trying to seal a pact with employers to kickstart France’s economy—and pleasing almost no one in the process. While many of Renzi’s proposals have been roundly criticized (especially by intellectuals on the left), voters clearly appreciated that he moved quickly and decisively, laying out a series of proposed reforms—of Italy’s electoral system, public administration, labor market, and justice and tax systems—and set specific deadlines for getting them through parliament.
The Democratic Party’s victory in Italy represents a remarkable comeback from its showing in national elections just over a year ago. Then, the party eked out a meagre victory against a surprisingly strong challenge from the populist Five-Star Movement, led by Beppe Grillo, a comedian. Indeed, the twenty-five per cent that Grillo won last year was much the kind of political earthquake that Le Pen’s victory this week has been in France, an expression of supreme popular dissatisfaction with the political establishment.
That the tables have turned is highly instructive. There are lessons here for insurgents and political purists, as well as incumbents.
If Grillo had chosen to, he could have forced the Democratic Party to put through a number of the reforms he had been pressing for, but the notion of compromising himself by negotiating with a traditional political party was unacceptable to him. Grillo refused any cooperation with the government, and punished anyone in his party who dissented. He limited himself to insulting his political opponents, calling the Democratic Party’s former secretary, Pier Luigi Bersani, a “dead man walking.” Renzi, by contrast, may have understood the success of Grillo’s movement better than its own leader did: Italians wanted change, and fast. Grillo came to appear purely negative; Renzi satisfied popular hunger for some kind of constructive action. Many of Grillo’s voters were not “anti-political” as much as they were fed up with politics as usual.
Clearly, there is something of this in the French vote, which has seen many moderate and formerly left-wing voters move toward the National Front. Polls indicate that Le Pen’s party has become the favorite of the French working class, and that significant numbers of Catholics, who had traditionally avoided it, also voted for the party for the first time. This both reflects the more moderate tone that Le Pen has adopted since taking over the party from her father, whose crude anti-immigrant rhetoric and Holocaust-minimizing statements made his party extremist and marginal, and her focus on economic issues—France’s steady deindustrialization and the sacrifices imposed by the economic unification of Europe. Most economists consider her proposed solutions—withdrawal from the euro zone and economic protectionism—likely to make France’s problems worse, but they appeal to the feeling of the moment.
The countries that have done the best in recent years are outside the euro zone and/or—as with Germany, Sweden, and Denmark—have undertaken painful structural reforms, finding a reasonable balance between a flexible job market, increased competitiveness, and the traditional security of the welfare state. In France, both Nicolas Sarkozy’s U.M.P. and Hollande’s Socialists have taken timid half steps in this direction, but have been unwilling to go all in. Meanwhile, unemployment, especially among the young, remains over ten per cent, economic growth is flat, and discontent grows.
As the rapid reversal between Grillo’s Five-Star Movement and Italy’s Democratic Party shows, a year is a long time in politics, and what goes up can come down, fast. Renzi seems to understand this, and remains in a hurry to translate his electoral success into legislative action. Incumbency is difficult, and he could find himself in Hollande’s unenviable position in a year or two. Renzi has also said that he will push the European Union to undertake significant changes as well. The crisis eating away at Europe’s weaker economies is the biggest threat to European unity. A system created to respond to political rather than economic logic needs fixing.
Whether there is a long-term solution to this crisis may depend on the possibility of restoring some measure of economic growth to countries like France and Italy. While most of the public attention to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” has been on his discussion of inequality and his proposal for a global wealth tax, in some ways, one of the book’s most important points is his conclusion that low growth—growth of about one per cent per year—has been the norm and not the exception throughout history, and that we can expect much more of the current low levels of growth among the most industrialized nations. As the Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman’s book “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth” shows, societies that grow tend to be open and generous, and those that do not fall prey to xenophobia and authoritarianism. If they are both right, Europe’s governments have little margin for error. Marine Le Pen may reap the whirlwind or return to comparative obscurity. But the traditional parties must govern well—or we can expect to see more of what we saw, looking right, on Sunday.
Above: Beppe Grillo speaks in Turin on May 17th. Photograph by Elena Aquila/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty.
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