France is hardly a utopia, but by most standards it is offering its citizens a fairly decent life. So why are so many willing to vote for — again, let’s not use euphemisms — a racist extremist?
On Sunday, France will hold its presidential runoff. Most observers expect Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, to defeat Marine Le Pen, the white nationalist — please, let’s stop dignifying this stuff by calling it “populism.” I very much hope the conventional wisdom is right. A Le Pen victory would be a disaster for Europe and the world.
Yet I also think it’s fair to ask a couple of questions about what’s going on. First, how did things get to this point? Second, would a Le Pen defeat be anything more than a temporary reprieve from the ongoing European crisis?
Some background: Like everyone on this side of the Atlantic, I can’t help seeing France in part through Trump-colored glasses. But it’s important to realize that the parallels between French and American politics exist despite big differences in underlying economic and social trends.
To begin, while France gets an amazing amount of bad press — much of it coming from ideologues who insist that generous welfare states must have disastrous effects — it’s actually a fairly successful economy. Believe it or not, French adults in their prime working years (25 to 54) are substantially more likely than their U.S. counterparts to be gainfully employed.
They’re also just about equally productive. It’s true that the French overall produce about a quarter less per person then we do — but that’s mainly because they take more vacations and retire younger, which are not obviously terrible things.
And while France, like almost everyone, has seen a gradual decline in manufacturing jobs, it never experienced anything quite like the “China shock” that sent U.S. manufacturing employment off a cliff in the early 2000s.
Meanwhile, against the background of this…