Back to Utopia?

PARIS – France no longer claims center stage in world history, but it remains influential beyond its national borders. From the eighteenth century on – including Charles de Gaulle’s epic role in World War II, decolonization in Africa, and the May 1968 student revolt – France has been a frequent bellwether of deep societal changes across Europe. Will its recent presidential election continue that tradition?

François Hollande, bland and bureaucratic, campaigned on a promise to be a “normal” president, unlike the colorful incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy – and, indeed, unlike all of his predecessors since the Fifth Republic was established in 1959. Hollande’s victory thus may be a sign that democratic countries have become reluctant to be led by flamboyant or charismatic presidents or prime ministers.

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Indeed, across Europe, no democracy is currently led by a strong or charismatic personality. Italy remains under an interim administration, but there, too, voters appear to have turned their backs on a rococo ruler. Europe has no Sarkozy or Silvio Berlusconi, but also no Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, or José Maria Aznar. At a time of economic and institutional crisis in Europe, all European leaders appear to be, well, extremely normal.

For many, the victory of normalcy over charisma should be cause for celebration. Democracy is about normal citizens electing normal men and women to lead them for a limited period according to established rules.

But the trend toward normalcy among European leaders coincides with a remarkable absence of vision and strategy. If any of these normal leaders have a long-term strategy for Europe (can anyone imagine such a thing from EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy or the Union’s foreign-policy supremo, Catherine Ashton?), they are remarkably unable to convey it.

In Hollande’s case, the rare glimpses of a comprehensive vision recall France’s successful social democracy of the 1960’s: a strong welfare state, together with abundant public investment to revive economic growth and boost employment. Hollande’s reference point seems to be the post-war idyll of his youth, a time of rapid growth, demographic recovery, scarce immigration, and scant global competition.

In other words, Hollande will try to entice other European leaders with a vision for a world that no longer exists. This politics of nostalgia is troubling, not only because France and Europe confront severe economic challenges, but also because France and other democracies are confronted with real challenges to their legitimacy.

In hindsight, the 2012 French Presidential election could well be remembered not so much for Hollande’s victory and the triumph of normalcy, but as the decisive step in populist parties’ long march to power. In the first round of the French presidential election, the far left, a motley collection of anti-capitalists and radical environmentalists garnered 14% of the vote. On the far right, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, the political heir of French fascism, won 18%, the party’s best result ever.

In other words, one-third of French voters are now attracted to candidates with extreme ideologies that share an anti-liberal rejection of the euro, capitalism, and globalization. Both sides find their roots in an idealized past: the French Revolution and its egalitarian promise for the far left, and the French Empire and its domination of the world’s non-white peoples for the far right.

Moreover, both extremes are strongly nationalistic. Persuaded as they are that France should act alone, they would close the economy to foreign competition, suppress financial markets, and send immigrants back to their homelands. The convergence goes beyond their agendas’ common irrationality. Both the far left and the far right find their core constituency among the vast number of French who feel economically insecure and politically disenfranchised – in essence, all those who perceive themselves as having no opportunity in an open society.

Hollande’s brand of normalcy does not appeal to these populist voters. But to dismiss them would be unwise, because their utopian aspirations are based on genuine and legitimate anxieties. Slow growth and globalization have divided all European societies – and the United States – into two new classes: those whose education and social capital enable them to cope with today’s globalized economy, and those stuck in low-paid, often transient jobs (and thus most directly affected by competition from legal and illegal immigrants).

No mainstream European leader, including Hollande, even mentions this new division. Indeed, both Hollande and Sarkozy represented those adapted to globalization and viewed the rest as a reservoir of voters to be seduced, not as a new underclass.

This superficial understanding of populism makes the French presidential election an ominous symptom of Europe’s blind leadership. A façade of normalcy cannot withstand the real dangers threatening the foundations of European societies.

Read more from our "Are the French Toast?" Focal Point.