Vive la Différence
The French election results are in and markets are celebrating the second place finish of the national Front’s Marine Le Pen. Pundits are claiming that this election, along with the recent defeat of Gert Wilders in the Dutch elections, shows that the populist right’s tide has turned and that the fate of social democratic Europe is assured, at least for the time being.
But it does not take a much deeper analysis to show that all is not right in French politics. The winner of the election, Emmanuel Macron, is a member of the French elite who has never held public office. He is the leader of a political movement, En Marche, which he founded in 2015 that has no deputies in the French National Assembly. His ability to govern, if elected, must be in doubt.
The traditional French political parties, the Republicans and the Socialists, suffered ignominious defeats, getting less than 20% for the Republican candidate and a pitiful 7% for the Socialists. But these two parties control over 82% of the seats in the National Assembly. What’s going on?
The rejection of the mainstream parties is indicative of the general dissatisfaction in France, and much of the rest of Europe, with the perceived defects in the governance of the European Union and the impact it has on citizens. They see economic stagnation, high unemployment (especially among youth) and uncontrolled immigration as the principal causes of their dissatisfaction. The French feel they are losing the soul of their nation. Not the soul of Europe, but of the French nation. This is the same discontent that led to Brexit. This was the wave that Marine Le Pen rode to national prominence. And Gert Wilders. And others. This tide is not ebbing. One cannot tell if the receding wave means the tide has turned or if the next wave will advance even higher.
The European Union is very fragile. The British are leaving. Greece almost had to leave and is hanging on barely. The fate of the Euro as a currency is very uncertain. Europe is very much like America was under the Articles of Confederation, an agglomeration of different polities bound together with only the merest strands of commonality. The American colonies had one advantage the Europeans lack. Virginians felt that they were very different from Massachusettsans. But they all had a common British heritage (in those days most people – except slaves- came from Britain) and almost all spoke the same language. They had also banded together in a war of independence and had shared many sacrifices to achieve that independence.
When the Articles of Confederation proved to be inadequate for the new nation, the colonists were able to come together in the Constitutional Convention to hammer out a document to unite all the various colonies. It was not easy but it was possible.
Europeans lack these advantages. A Frenchman believes that he is French first and European second. The same for Germans. The same for Italians. They all speak different languages. It is very hard for them to reform the European Union to create a great nation state. In fact, some European states are beginning to break up into even smaller units. The Czechs separated from the Slovaks. The Catalonians and the Basques want to be separate from Spain. The Scots want to be separate from Great Britain.
The United States is also going through a period of dissatisfaction with the status quo. According the latest Rasmussen poll, 53% of the country thinks the United States is heading in the wrong direction (although this is a great improvement from last year when at one time 72% thought we were going in the wrong direction). But, despite some rumblings from ultra-liberal California, the United States is not about to break up.
I am American first and Texan (where I live) second. Neither am I a Michigander where I grew up and went to school (Go Blue!). Nor am I an Illini from where I was born. I am not a hyphenated American. Although I am proud of my heritage I am more concerned about where we are all going than where we are all from. I think most Americans would agree.
There is another important factor that our European friends lack. Although relatively few Americans now have the British heritage (or it is much attenuated) that bound the colonists together, we share a common philosophy. More than any other country, America was founded on a set of principles and it is those principles that bind us together in an edifice of trust. The current unhappiness on the direction of our country is not due to dissatisfaction with those principles but in the failure of our leaders to adhere to those principles.
Although Europeans participate in western culture, you cannot say that they share a common culture. Each culture (and subculture) is different. While the Europeans want to benefit from economic integration, they lack the will to take the necessary steps to forge a common culture. The electoral results have been in reaction EU officials in Brussels trying to impose an administrative European culture over the traditional cultures of the various countries in the union. Economic integration is very different from cultural integration and the people of Europe are stating their preference for their local cultures.
There is an important lesson here for us Americans as well. Certain factions in this country (you know who they are) are trying to assert the moral equivalence of different cultures and to foist multiculturalism and multilingualism on Americans. But Europe is showing us that this is not the route to greater unity and harmony but a road disharmony and eventual break up. Only by adherence to our American principles based on western Enlightenment philosophy can we achieve the unity we seek so that we can put our country on the right course.