With the French general election approaching, I’d like to talk about a time when the French people set an example for all of us who believe the West can’t afford to descend into petty nationalism. Now, as an American educated in Britain, I can’t resist a good round of froggy-taunting, so lauding the Gauls is a little unnatural for me. But as funny as it was when Bart Simpson called them cheese-eating surrender monkeys, I’ve got to admit that their cheese is delicious and we will probably have to let the surrender of 1940 go at some point (though obviously not yet). More importantly, while we Americans were munching on Freedom Fries and petulantly pouring excellent wine into storm drains, the French people saved their Republic (5th time’s the charm!) from a nationalist anti-semite by the name of Jean-Marie Le Pen. They did it by uniting around the only remaining rational candidate, the conservative Jaques Chirac, no matter what party they belonged to. Every citizen of a western democracy, including French voters today, should be thinking about ways we can emulate them, and unite around core principles to resist Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and the nationalism he is supporting all over Europe.
The threat of nationalism came from voter disenchantment
In the Presidential election of 2002, the polls and the media predicted that there would be a simple contest between President Jaques Chirac and his socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. This seemingly locked-in result infuriated a lot of French voters (sound familiar yet, my fellow Americans?). As a consequence, the election had very low turnout by French standards, with fewer than 3/4 of voters participating, and the voters who did turn out registered their dissatisfaction with their choices.
Jospin, thought to be a shoo-in, didn’t make it into the runoff. One reason he did not was that far left candidates received protest votes. One candidate, described by the Guardian as an “unreconstructed Trotskyite” who wanted to dismantle parliamentary democracy, received 6.3% of the vote. French voters were mad, and the result was that one of the two candidates to emerge from the first round scrum was Jean-Marie Le Pen, the odious father of current National Front leader and Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
Political leaders put country over party
The first round of the 2002 election shocked and alarmed the world. Le Pen was so universally viewed as unfit, that no one had thought he could possibly get enough of the vote to be in the runoff. The socialist party, having suffered a devastating and confusing loss, had what I will always believe to be the correct reaction; current President and then party leader Francois Hollande said “we’ll do what we have to do because we are republicans and democrats” and told his members to vote conservative. Even though the socialists knew that helping Chirac would undermine their own chances in a coming election of Parliament, they understood that protecting the Republic itself was more important than one electoral victory, and helped him to the biggest landslide in French history. As the socialist finance minister said, “Le Pen’s score, for the honour of France, must be as low as possible.”
France, you got this
I think their willingness to unite to preserve the integrity of their Republic serves as an exemplar for how to beat back the rise of nationalism in every democracy. When faced with Brexit and the rise of Trump, Britain and America, convinced this sort of thing could never happen to us, have failed utterly to combat nationalism. We threw away our integrity as rational democracies through apathy and an inability to unite. The French, however, have always had a different kind of commitment to national honor and national reputation than either Britain or America, and they are deeply pragmatic (some would even say cynical).
Although we haven’t seen a lot of great news in this year of political destabilization, I think there’s a good chance that France will succeed where we failed. Next month, it is likely that Marine Le Pen, a right wing nationalist, and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist social democrat, will emerge as the runoff candidates for President of France. If the French take a page from their own history, perhaps the conservatives can do for France what the socialists did in 2002 – put country over party and vote for the sane guy to run the country. We all need to hope so, because the survival of the EU and other international institutions is in their hands. In a very real way, we all are.