Friday, 28 April 2017

The French rust belt

On Tuesday a friend on Facebook posted a link to a map of France published by the Ministry of the Interior showing the areas where Emmanuel Macron and Marine le Pen had picked up most of their votes last Sunday. It showed clearly that Le Pen had registered the strongest support in Northern and Eastern France as well as the Mediterranean coast from the Spanish to the Italian borders. The link triggered quite a discussion. One person described how her native village  had become little more than a ghost town with deserted houses, an exodus of young people and a crying lack of decent Internet connections.

Readers who are familiar with France will know that the traditional rust belt industries of coal mining and iron and steel production were concentrated mainly in Northern and Eastern France. I wrote in my post of April 7 (“Macron unplugged”) how the French government, during the Hollande presidency, promised the workers of the last blast furnace in Lorraine, when it was threatened with closure, that the plant would be saved. In the end it was unable to stop it closing. Despite fine words and multiple promises, many former miners, steel workers and employees in traditional industries have been unable to find new jobs. Without jobs young people have left, leaving behind ageing and blighted communities. For lack of demand, public services have been cut and Internet service providers unwilling to make big investments. A vicious but familiar circle has set in.

In the Mediterranean area, the story is a little different. It is here that most of the former French colonists and their families settled when they were forcibly ejected from Algeria at the end of the 1950s. It is also an area of high immigration from North Africa. Le Pen’s party, Le Front National has been skilful in exploiting both the decline of traditional industries in the North and East of the country and anti-immigrant feeling in the South. I shall return to this issue in another post

It is hard to believe that successive French governments of the right and the left have not realised the mounting feelings of frustration and abandonment of people in these areas. Have the ever increasing electoral scores of the Front National since the middle 1980s not been enough? Apparently not, because in spite of repeated pledges, promises and commitments, precious little has been done about it. Regional authorities, embroiled over the past few years in complicated reforms of regional borders and powers, have not done much better. The visible investment in major infrastructure like high-speed rail links and motorways, has benefitted mainly cities like Lille and the Channel ports in the North and Metz, Nancy and Strasburg in the East. Rural and semi-rural communities still have the feeling that the rising tide of globalisation has passed them by.

As often happens in France there has been a great eagerness to talk about all these problems, in general and often theoretical terms, but too little has actually been done. And at each election, more and more voters have registered their anger and frustration by voting for extremist parties. Jacques Chirac who beat Jean-Marie Le Pen by a huge margin in the run-off of the 2002 presidential election, after the shock elimination of the socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, had, with hindsight, a golden opportunity to take the bull by the horns and initiate a series of bold and forward looking initiatives to win back disaffected voters. He did nothing of the kind. During his presidency and particularly during his campaign for re-election in 2012, Nicholas Sarkozy tried to hoover up the extremist vote by advocating more hard-line right-wing policies. He too failed, falling victim to the cruel but effective jibe from Marine Le Pen:    “Vote for the real thing and not for the copy”. François Hollande, caught up in the contradictions between a radical sounding electoral platform, the necessary pragmatism of power and the reality of his parliamentary majority, has been unable to do much more than try and hold back the rising tide of extremism by opposing the closure of uncompetitive plants and staving off the concomitant job losses. The two page document issued on Monday by the first secretary of the Socialist Party, after its humiliation on Sunday, is full of lofty rhetoric about republican values, the dangers of unbridled nationalism and need for a “republican front” to prevent Marine le Pen from winning power, but illustrates once again that the party has little clue about how to win back voters who have deserted it. Little wonder, after so many years, that many people consider that the seemingly common sense and simplistic remedies proposed by Marine Le Pen will solve all their problems. On TV the other night, one young man summed it all up when asked who he would be voting for on April 23: “Marine Le Pen, because everyone else has failed, we should give her a try.”

All this will sound only too familiar to those who watched, mesmerised, as Donald Trump conquered the U.S Presidency last November. His opponent, Hilary Clinton, in addition to running a pretty soggy campaign, was far too easily identified in the eyes of many voters with a privileged Washington elite that had done nothing to stop the decline of traditional industries and employment in the rust belt states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. These were the states that tipped the balance in favour of Trump.

The lesson should be crystal clear. If Emmanuel Macron is elected the next President of France, as the opinion polls are predicting, one of his first tasks should be to talk less and do more than his predecessors have done to give back to so many French voters a feeling that they have a stake in their future, that of their children and of their communities. There is surely no more urgent task in France today than to restore a sense of unity to an increasingly divided people.

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