La Patrie En Danger! The prospect of a victory for the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, looms over the future of the European Union. In the year of Brexit and Trump many would consider it "Strike Three - and your out!" for the neoliberal order. Will the key issue of immigration drive New Zealand politics in a similar direction?
IF FRENCH VOTERS advance Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon to May’s run-off presidential election, the European Union will tremble. Both the far-right nationalist, Le Pen, and the far-left firebrand, Mélenchon, are committed to a fundamental reconstitution of the European Project. Victory for two such uncompromising enemies of the status-quo would send crushing shockwaves through the entire European political class.
The French punditocracy are, however, supremely confident that this worst-case scenario will not eventuate. As they see it, the pro-EU, neoliberal standard-bearer, Emmanuel Macron, will squeak through just ahead of Mélenchon and the scandal-plagued conservative, François Fillon. Faced with the prospect of the quasi-fascist Le Pen, they argue, conservatives, socialists and the far-left will be forced to unite behind the “centrist” Macron. Extreme ideas, rejected repeatedly by the French electorate will, out of fear of even more extreme ideas, finally secure their long-delayed admittance to the Élysée Palace.
Or will they? The colossal cynicism underpinning such a “choice” may stick in the French electorate’s craw. Given the choice of a France fastened to the Procrustean Bed of the EU’s unyielding rules and regulations: or, the fast-fading glories of historical France; the France of hilltop villages and cathedral towns; the France of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; then, who knows, they might just vote for Marine Le Pen – and the cynicism of the political class be dammed!
Here in New Zealand, meanwhile, the leader of NZ First, Winston Peters, will be assessing the results of the French elections with particular care. As the man who predicted both Brexit and Trump, Peters has every right to feel confident of his ability to both interpret and exploit the worldwide populist surge.
Scornful of the pollsters’ ability to any longer intercept and measure accurately the volatility of twenty-first century popular opinion, Peters relies upon the direct, face-to-face feedback of the public meeting to inform him of the electorate’s mood. He understands that those sufficiently motivated to come out to a political gathering are also the ones most likely to vote. Even better, they are the civic-minded types who encourage others to join them in doing their democratic duty. Opinion leaders in their local communities, they will put into forthright public utterances sentiments that their less confident neighbours only mutter in private.
In other words, one modest meeting in a suburban community centre may contain multitudes.
If reports of such meetings are accurate reflections of the opinions of active citizens (as well as those of citizens who can be easily activated) then NZ First’s leader will be in no doubt about which “hot button” issues he needs to push.
The biggest and hottest button of the 2017 General Election may be summarised in the question: “Who the heck are our politicians listening to? Because they’re sure as hell not listening to us!”
All over the world, this is the question which aggrieved and alienated voters are asking.
There is no shortage of answers. Among those accused of commandeering the attention of the people’s representatives are: bankers; corporations; politically correct elites; “the lying media”; globalisers. Ordinary, decent, hard-working people; people who pay their taxes and follow the rules; people like themselves; have, in the opinion of these voters, been shunted aside and their preferences ignored. Or, even worse, they have been made to feel that, in the greater scheme of things, they no longer count.
The alienated and aggrieved look around them for evidence of their displacement and everywhere, from Taihape to Toulouse, their unfriendly gaze settles on the ones who were not present in the land of their childhood; their parents’ country; but who are now everywhere they look. Speakers of foreign languages; wearers of outlandish clothes; followers of unfamiliar faiths; purchasers of “their” real estate, “their” local businesses, “their” local clout: immigrants!
In New Zealand, as Peters well knows, this anger with the immigrant extends not only to the record numbers of people arriving from overseas, but also to those who have emigrated from those impoverished fragments of New Zealand which, until quite recently, had been reserved for the losers of the great colonial struggles of the nineteenth century. Successful Maori generate almost as much rancour among aggrieved Pakeha voters as successful “Asians”.
If France’s two populist “outsiders” advance to the second round, what conclusions will our own populist outsider draw from their success?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 April 2017.