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Can Nationalists Ever Make Good Liberals?

France's new president is betting that he can bring disaffected voters back into the liberal fold by combining openness with economic growth. What if he just makes them even angrier?

French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party, Marine Le Pen (L) and French presidential election candidate for the En Marche ! movement, Emmanuel Macron pose prior to the start of a live brodcast face-to-face televised debate in television studios of French public national television channel France 2, and French private channel TF1 in La Plaine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on May 3, 2017 as part of the second round election campaign.
Pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen face off in a final televised debate on May 3 that will showcase their starkly different visions of France's future ahead of this weekend's presidential election run-off.  / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Eric FEFERBERG        (Photo credit should read ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party, Marine Le Pen (L) and French presidential election candidate for the En Marche ! movement, Emmanuel Macron pose prior to the start of a live brodcast face-to-face televised debate in television studios of French public national television channel France 2, and French private channel TF1 in La Plaine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on May 3, 2017 as part of the second round election campaign. Pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen face off in a final televised debate on May 3 that will showcase their starkly different visions of France's future ahead of this weekend's presidential election run-off. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Eric FEFERBERG (Photo credit should read ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

We live in a time of catastrophic political experiments. Americans are learning how far the institutions of civil society can protect democratic norms in the face of an autocratically minded president. The British are about to find out how much economic pain they can endure for the privilege of flipping the bird to Europe. Italians may soon hand the reins of power to a clown — literally.

For this reason, the results of the recent legislative election in France feel as miraculous as a lantern suddenly lowered into a cave. With President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the Move party having gained a solid majority of seats in the National Assembly, France is about to show the world how far liberalism can succeed in a profoundly illiberal era. Macron himself prefers the label “neither left nor right” to “liberal,” a word that in French carries the purely pejorative meaning of “laissez faire” — but he is recognizably a “Third Way” liberal in the mold of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair. The fact that the French have traditionally viewed liberals as heartless servants of capitalism makes his success that much more remarkable.

Macron has begun meeting with representatives of business and labor in order to push through his plan to end France’s statist tradition of negotiating work rules at the national level. He plans to issue an executive order this summer, permitting industry-wide or firm-level negotiations with labor that will allow variation in the workweek and enable firms to more easily hire and fire employees. When his predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, attempted to reform the labor market, massive street demonstrations forced them to back off. The main French union has already set September 12 as a “day of action” against the proposed reform. However, Macron may have both the grit and the political support to push his plans through.

Next year, Macron hopes to implement reforms that will regularize a fragmented pension system and convert unemployment insurance into a source of lifelong career training. At the same time, he hopes to increase the minimum wage, cut the amount deducted from the average paycheck for social welfare programs, and invest 50 billion euros over five years into training, green energy, and other fields. If he can even make serious headway on that immensely ambitious agenda, Macron may manage to restore the tattered French belief in politics and the state. He may even drain some of the poison from the word “liberal.”

Still, it is not because governments are too statist that liberalism is in crisis in the West; that’s a distinctly French problem, requiring a distinctly French solution. What has provoked the crisis is a widespread sense among middle- and working-class voters that they have been left behind — both economically and culturally — in a globalized world where jobs, money, ideas, and people sweep across the planet with little regard for borders or traditions or national identity. That, in its many variations, is what accounts for Donald Trump and Brexit and the National Front and the “illiberal democracy” of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban. The Macron experiment is thus even more portentous, and even more difficult, than it seems.

The Macron insiders whom I met during the election are acutely aware of the need to address the disaffection of industrial workers, village dwellers, the unemployed, and others. They believe that the economic reforms and targeted investments he has planned will create new opportunities for those groups and thus win at least grudging support from far-right and far-left voters who loathe him. There is a view — recently expressed in Edward Luce’s book The Retreat of Western Liberalism — that the fear and anger toward Islam, and the resentment toward elites seen to be soft on Islam, are ultimately caused by frustration over declining economic prospects and thus can be cured, or at least brought under control, with the medicine of economic policy. But nationalism afflicts prosperous countries like Sweden, as well as stagnant ones like France or Hungary. Liberals are much too inclined to see values as the ephemeral consequences of “real” — i.e., economic — conditions. That’s why Americans on the left think that Republicans have used some sort of black magic to persuade working-class whites to vote for them despite the GOP’s plutocratic policies.

In France, issues of culture, identity, and nation center on the country’s large population of North African immigrants. During the campaign, Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front, pledged to reduce immigration to an impossible 10,000 people a year (from a current figure of about 200,000), while François Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Les Républicains, said he would amend the constitution in order to cut down the flow. Even former Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls openly criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for accepting so many Syrian refugees.

Macron is as liberal on matters of identity as he is on the economy, though there is very little political hay to be made on the left side of the issue. In his campaign book, Revolution, he asks, “How can we insist that our fellow citizens believe in the Republic if some among us use one of our founding principles, laïcité” — the secular code — “to tell them that they have no place in it?” Macron defends the right of Muslim women in universities to wear the hijab and in one debate ridiculed Le Pen for making a burning issue of the “burkini,” an Islam-inspired full-body swimsuit. He speaks of immigration as a source of economic and national strength — the classic liberal position — and, in a rebuke to Valls, thanked Merkel for defending European values by accepting refugees.

Of course, Macron is a calculating politician. He has promised to institute a more “humane” asylum system so as to quickly separate those who merit protection from those who must be expeditiously deported. While during the campaign, and in his book, he repeatedly asserted that France needs no new law to deal with terrorism, his government is now promulgating a bill that would, in effect, make the current state of emergency a matter of standing law, transferring many powers from the judiciary to the Interior Ministry — a measure that has drawn a howl of protest from the editors of the left-of-center Le Monde. (The government has now promised to soften the measure.)

But Macron’s policies are much likelier to inflame nationalist opinion than they are to mollify it. He is the supreme representative of the French elite, and on the right his policies on immigration and refugees are seen as signs of elite indifference to the situation of ordinary Frenchmen and women. Christian, my French teacher when I was in Paris this spring, called himself “un déplorable” — a fan of Trump and Le Pen. Christian raged at the West African immigrants who increasingly dominated the life of Montreuil, the town outside Paris where he lived, and at cosmopolitan elites (like me) who, he thought, held traditionalists like him in contempt. In the midst of one of our innumerable arguments, Christian would say, “You and I can’t talk to each other.” We had too little in common even to find common ground.

I’ve heard this sense of estrangement from supporters of the nationalist right in Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Germany, and in France. And, of course, it lies at the core of Donald Trump’s appeal. The fact is that while the state really does have levers to dislodge economic frustration, there is relatively little it can do to assuage fears of eroding national identity — at least without capitulating to the right. Macron has to hope that the economics-first theorists of the liberal crisis are correct. That, perhaps, is the true magnitude of the experiment he has embarked upon.

Photo credit: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

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