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Prayer For the French Republic Wrap
The center has made some enemies, but it has to if it wants to be anything
In 2002, Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, shocked his country and the world by reaching the second round of the French presidential elections. He did so, however, by winning less than 17% of the first-round vote. His second-round opponent, the Gaullist Jacques Chirac, won less than 20%. The Socialist Lionel Jospin came in a close third with over 16% of the first-round vote, and after that each of four candidates—a center-rightist, a Trotskyist, a left-eurosceptic and a Green—won between 5% and 7% of the vote. It was an absurdly fragmented result, and yet fairly normal for France, and was not a sign that the far right was about to take over. On the contrary, in the second round Chirac won 82% of the vote, utterly demolishing Le Pen père.
In 2017, it looked for a moment like things might end differently with Le Pen fille on the ballot instead of her father. The traditional right- and left-wing parties were in crisis, and Marine Le Pen had taken a number of steps to distance herself from her father’s legacy of racist and antisemitic nostalgia for the Algerian generals and for Vichy. Moreover, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump appeared to be heralding a new populist dawn that Le Pen seemed well-poised to seize. I wrote a column at the time wondering whether there wasn’t a case to be made for Le Pen that deserved reckoning with rather than dismissing. But while the final result was not nearly so lopsided as 2002, centrist political neophyte Emmanuel Macron still trounced her by two-to-one. France was flirting with radicalism, but it was not prepared to elect a president from outside the political mainstream, however disenamored they were with the mainstream’s parties.
2022’s first-round result suggests a continued movement away from the traditional center. In 2017, four candidates were plausible contenders to make the second round, and three of them—Macron, Le Pen and the left-eurosceptic Jean-Luc Mélenchon—were from outside the circle of traditional governing parties. The fourth candidate was François Fillon of the Gaullist Républicains, the successor party to Chirac’s UMP. All three upstarts won a higher percentage of the vote this time than in 2017: Macron’s share rose from 24.1% to 27.6%; Le Pen’s from 21.3% to 23.4%; and Mélenchon’s from 19.6% to 22.0%. The Républicains, meanwhile, came in at 4.8%, substantially outpolled by political talking head Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête party at 7.1%, which had outflanked Le Pen to the even farther right. François Mitterand’s Socialists did even worse, earning a risible 1.7%; they, in turn, were outpolled by Jean Lasalle’s ruralist, localist, socially conservative Résistons party, even though Lasalle had considered dropping out of the campaign earlier this year due to lack of press interest.
Together with Macron, the representatives of France’s historical governing parties and their successors earned little more than 36% of the vote. Yet Macron is still favored to win reelection—though by a narrower margin than in 2017.
That should probably strike people as more strange than it seems to be. How can the center ultimately win a majority when its parties fell so far short of one in the first round?
Part of the reason for such a strange result is that the extremes of left and right still anathematize each other even more than they do the center. Not only the vestigial traditional governing parties but the Communists and Greens as well have already announced their support for Macron because Le Pen is completely anathema to them. Mélenchon has not gone so far, but he has made it abundantly clear that he thinks none of his supporters should vote Le Pen (though they could, of course, stay home rather than backing Macron in the second round). If Le Pen only wins over Zemmour’s voters, while Macron only wins over the voters of parties that have endorsed him, he would beat her by nearly 20 points even with no votes from Mélenchon.
I think there’s a deeper reason though than that. Macron’s centrism has proven distinctly unsatisfying, and a substantial majority of the French population appears to find Macron quite irritating on a personal level. But we’re now several years into the populist revolt against the traditional center, and Europe’s populists of the left and right have very few concrete achievements to point to. By contrast, the centrist technocrats have actually shown more than a little life of late.
Consider Italy, which elected an overwhelmingly populist coalition in 2018, only to turn to the former head of the European Central Bank to run the country during the Covid crisis. Mario Draghi is widely credited with having successfully managed the economic side of Covid’s ructions, and is now one of the most popular political leaders in Europe. His success depended in part on changes that happened on the European level, most importantly the NGEU, the first serious gesture toward a European fiscal policy, which required agreement between Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to push through. It was the first glimpse I can recall of a proper European government.
The response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the second. Macron has simultaneously tried to keep good lines of communication open to Putin while robustly joining in providing material support for Ukraine and upholding sanctions against Russia. He’s acted in concert with NATO while reiterating his belief that Europe needs institutions to enable it to act outside of NATO, or for NATO to evolve from an American-led alliance based in Europe to an alliance between a united Europe and the United States. That’s not satisfying to those skeptical of Atlanticism as such, whether for nationalist or left-wing reasons. But it’s actually creative and forward-looking—and this is a rare moment when it feels like there’s enough movement in enough European capitals that real institutional changes could come about.
I’m not sure the opposition, in either left- or right-wing populist variants, has any similar clarity about its institutional objectives. On the contrary, they’ve increasingly become oppositional groups defined more by who they are and what they reject than by what they are for. That’s a real problem for winning a mandate to govern.
The French center has unquestionably shrunk. It has also coalesced into a single unit, no longer meaningfully divided between left and right, which leaves a vacuum where normal political competition ought to be. If the partisans of Mélenchon and Le Pen could actually work together, the center would be in very serious trouble. But the center is no longer too obviously sclerotic or brain-dead to run on its record. It has made enemies in part because it has made mistakes and in part because times have just been tough. But it has made decisions. That’s a start.
The title of this post, by the way, is taken from a very disappointing play I saw earlier this year, in which a bunch of French Jews (and one American Jew) argued about whether there was any future for themselves in France, what with street violence against Jews surging on the one hand and Le Pen’s electoral prospects surging on the other. I have a particular antipathy for plays that sound like they’d rather be political columns, and this was one of those. The characters are all mouthpieces for the author’s own anxieties; they have some characterization, but no actual character, no true interiority. And for all the argument, there was precious little drama.
But staged in 2022—the play was set a few years ago (with flashbacks to the immediate post-World War II era)—the most glaring oddity was that I was watching hand-wringing and shouting about Le Pen and radical Islam as twin threats even as the most extreme right presence on in French politics was a Jew. The impression I get is that Zemmour didn’t get much support from Jews in France (he may have gotten more from French Jews in Israel), but it nonetheless strikes me as incredibly narrow to circumscribe the Jewish world as being entirely composed of liberal conservatives or conservative liberals, people who are committed in one way or another to the dead center of the previous generation and either paralyzed with anxiety or ready to flee if that particular center doesn’t hold.
The Jewish world I know is wilder and weirder than that, less comfortable and less comforting. I suspect it is in France as well. So if we have to stage arguments rather than plays, I really wish they’d be better ones, ones that are actually about the future, rather than always about the past.
The Last Democratic SCOTUS Appointment?
When Ketanji Brown Jackson was nominated, I wrote a column arguing that she’d be a real asset to the Supreme Court precisely because of her distinctive background as a public defender. Now that she has been confirmed, I decided to pour a bath of ice-cold water on all those celebrating, by arguing in a new column that she might well be the last opportunity to celebrate for a long time. Why? Because the Democrats now have a very uphill climb to maintain control of the Senate.
The problem is the geography of the two parties' respective coalitions. President Biden won exactly half of the states, but he won three of them by less than 1 percent (Arizona, New Mexico, and Wisconsin) and three more by less than 5 percent (Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Michigan). Only two Trump states went by less than 5 percent, none by less than 1 percent. There are only 16 states where Biden won by more than 10 percent, and Democrats already control all of those their Senate seats. There are 20 where Trump did, and two of them have Democratic senators. The implication is that in a highly nationalized political environment, and with the two parties' coalitions structured as they are today, Democrats will control the Senate only once in a blue moon.
That wouldn't matter much for the Supreme Court if the Senate regularly confirmed qualified nominees appointed by presidents of the opposite party. But that norm went by the wayside longer ago than most people probably realize. The last Supreme Court nominee to be confirmed by a Senate controlled by the opposition party was Clarence Thomas over 30 years ago. And even in a friendly Senate, the norm of bipartisan support was gone long before Trump's presidency. Twenty-two Democrats voted against John Roberts when George W. Bush nominated him for Chief Justice, and 40 Democrats voted against Samuel Alito. David Souter was the last Republican nominee to the Supreme Court to win the overwhelming support of Democrats, while Stephen Breyer was the last Democratic pick to be similarly supported by an overwhelming majority of Republican senators.
The kicker, though, is that these two developments are closely related, which makes it hard to see how older norms could be restored. As Republicans will gladly inform you, Democrats were the first party to politicize the Court, derailing Robert Bork's nomination, attacking Clarence Thomas, and opposing Samuel Alito for overtly ideological reasons. Democrats would counter that it's Republican nominees who have gotten increasingly radical. From a political perspective, though, what matters is that Republicans have successfully nationalized Senate elections in part by making Supreme Court nominations a crucial issue. Indeed, the backlash against Democrats for their attacks on then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh was a major factor in powering Republicans to their 2018 Senate victory (as I predicted it might be at the time). Sen. Joe Manchin's (W.V.) solitary Democratic vote to confirm is probably what saved his seat, which he retained by less than a 1 percent margin.
The Democratic and Republican bases are now extremely far apart on the hot-button social issues that drive political engagement over the Supreme Court, and both parties are increasingly dependent on their bases for funding. That makes it exceptionally difficult for either party to acquiesce in a nomination their base despises, even if that opposition cannot actually derail the nomination — hence the outrageous accusations and insinuations of being soft on pedophiles and terrorists aimed at Jackson by the likes of Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.). If the Senate had a two-vote Republican majority, Romney, Murkowski, and Collins would have come under even fiercer pressure not to break ranks. Now imagine if Justice Clarence Thomas were to die tomorrow. The battle over his replacement could become a dominant issue in the 2022 midterms, and if Republicans prevailed, they could hold his seat open until 2024, or even beyond — the Merrick Garland nomination battle on endless repeat.
Read the whole thing.
Where the Populists Still Govern
My only piece on Substack this week was about Viktor Orbán’s victory in the Hungarian parliamentary elections. If France is a place where the weakened center might (hopefully) still hold, Hungary is a place where the new populist center has proved notably more durable. But what I was interested in was something else that distinguished Hungary not only from other European countries but even from other European populists: its opposition to taking sides in the Russian war against Ukraine:
What’s most notable to me about Fidesz’s decisive victory, though, is that it rewarded a foreign policy stance that is an outlier among its fellows in Central Europe. While he has clearly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and has complied with the European Union’s sanctions, Orbán has been equally clear that he opposes those sanctions, and has been extremely clear about wanting to keep Hungary out of the war, to the point of preventing non-lethal aid to Ukraine from transiting Hungarian territory. Moreover, Fidesz ran on this as a core part of their closing election strategy, accusing the opposition of planning to get Hungary involved in the Ukrainian conflict and thereby threatening Hungarians’ own safety and well-being.
That’s in marked contrast to other Central European states, especially including Hungary’s compatriot in populist-nationalism, Poland. That difference, I argued, reflects real differences in national history and therefore how they perceive the national interest. Which in turn leads me back to . . . France:
There’s a larger lesson there about the enduring importance of national interest as opposed to ideological alignment, with potential implications for Western European countries as well. Compare, for example, the UK’s stance on Ukraine to France’s. Russia provided the same kind of sub-rosa support for the Brexit campaign that they have for any number of other politically disruptive movements in Europe and elsewhere (support that, in my opinion, was of negligible importance in determining the outcome), and Boris Johnson’s Tories have been accused (somewhat unfairly, I think) of being narrowly nationalist little Englanders. But Johnson’s government has been the most supportive of Ukraine’s fight in all of Western Europe, and it is that stance which has halted the catastrophic slide in its popularity. Were Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer not foursquare in support of the government’s positions on Ukraine, the Tories would probably be doing even better.
By contrast, France has been one of Western Europe’s more conciliatory countries, keeping personal lines of communication open with Putin and consistently advocating some kind of negotiated solution to the conflict. France is in no way neutral; President Emmanuel Macron has joined with his allies in Europe and America in imposing draconian sanctions on Russia. But presenting a united front may be an electoral liability rather than an asset: his most formidable opponent in the next election, Marine Le Pen, who is forthrightly opposed to France’s membership in NATO and who takes a significantly more pro-Russian stance, has surged in recent polls. Nor is Le Pen alone; the French tribunes of the far left are equally firm in their opposition to membership in NATO or to direct engagement on Ukraine’s side in the war. The reason for the difference, again, is national interest. While France is less vulnerable than many European states to the impact of sanctions (France imports considerably less Russian gas than Germany or Italy, for example), France has always had an ambivalent relationship at best with Atlanticism, and the Atlanticist dispensation has been front and center in the campaign to support Ukraine. The fact that Macron is a centrist technocrat par excellence can’t completely override that difference in national perspective.
I’d argue Macron is particularly valuable to the Ukrainian cause precisely because France is not obviously spoiling for a fight with Russia, and because he must make his case to the French people in terms other than paeans to the glories of NATO. But that value depends on his ability to convince his country that his stance is, in fact, making France great again, and not just making it a lackey of the Americans. I hope he can.