Observations of an expat: France – Nationalism v Supra-nationalism

The French troop to the polls this Sunday to decide whether they want to turn the clock back to 19th century nationalism with a dash of racism, or opt for European supra-nationalism.

Of course, very few French voters see the choice in those terms. Like most everyone everywhere, they are less concerned with big picture politics and more concerned with their pocket books and the spectre of the unknown.

But like it or not, the outcome of the French elections will have a major impact on the big issues in France and – because of France’s international role – the rest of the world.

The choice is clear: a vote for Marine Le Pen is a vote for 19th century nationalism. Support for incumbent Emmanuel Macron is a vote for the continuing trend towards supra-nationalism and a united Europe.

Since the end of World War Two, the world has been moving towards regionalisation, globalism and free trade. The European Coal and Steel Community, followed by the Common Market, followed by the EU has been the world’s most successful political expression of that trend. The founders’ aims have been achieved: to bind together the political and economic structures of the European nations so that war becomes “unthinkable and materially impossible.”

The price of this peace and prosperity has been curbs on national sovereignty. A majority of the British people couldn’t stomach it. They also felt that their national identity was threatened. The result was Brexit. Marine Le Pen represents a slice of the French electorate who would favour a Frexit for the same reasons.

The leader of National Rally pushed for a British-style referendum in the 2017 presidential race. She lost that badly and so this time around she watered down her Euro-scepticism. Instead she has proposed everything short of Frexit – withdrawal from the Schengen Agreement, the primacy of French law over the EU, and French state subsidies in contravention of EU regulations. All of which would put France on an early collision course with Brussels and create the conditions for Frexit.

Marine le Pen also dislikes NATO which has been dubbed the most successful military alliance in history. She wants to pull her country out of the integrated military structure. France, she says, should “no longer be caught up in conflicts that are not ours.”

Which brings us to Ukraine, Russia and Ms Le Pen’s relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In common with most far-right politicians, the leader of National Rally is an admirer of strong autocratic rulers and you don’t get much stronger or more autocratic than Putin. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she has backed away from her support of the Russian leader, but other Western leaders are worried that she would be a weak link in a so far united front against Moscow.

Like other right-wing populists, Ms Le Pen uses the fear of immigrant-fuelled social contamination and the consequent loss of national identity to win support. Roughly ten percent of the French population is foreign-born. Ms Le Pen wants to impose a “France for the French” policy and deprive the foreign-born residents of state benefits and use the money saved to distribute to the indigenous French. She also wants to ban the wearing of head scarves by Muslim women which she insists on calling “veils.”

The National Rally leader is politically acute enough to know that many of her policies are divisive. That is why she has tried to steer the debate to the cost of living crisis. On this score, President Macron is vulnerable. As the man who has inhabited the Elysee Palace for the past five years he bears responsibility for everything that has happened during his administration.  This includes inflation at 4.5 percent; the handling of the pandemic; relations with Russia; proposals to raise the retirement age and all the other baggage of hard decisions that comes with being the person in charge.

But the strongest criticism levelled against Macron is that he is an aloof figure overly-concerned with the interests of the rich and powerful. Ms Le Pen, in contrast, has projected herself as the champion of the little people.

As for Europe, President Macron, is possibly the most European of the European leaders. He sees the EU as an opportunity rather than threat. It is a vehicle, he argues, through which France can lead the world by leading Europe.

On Wednesday the two candidates met in a head to head television debate. Macron won. He may have appeared aloof but he also demonstrated full grasp of the details. Marine Le Pen was more a candidate of the people but Macron drove a cart and horse through her manifesto. She was particularly vulnerable on her connections with Russia, whose banks have loaned millions of Euros to the campaign coffers of the National Rally.

With only a few days before the second round (24 April), the bookies are giving 10-1 odds in favour of Macron. The opinion polls have him ten points ahead of Marine Le Pen. But even if the incumbent does emerge victorious, the fact that Ms Le Pen has faced Macron twice in a run-off and improved her performance the second time around, proves that the wider nationalist v supra-nationalist battle will continue to be an issue in France and almost everywhere else.


* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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  • Cj Williams 22nd Apr '22 - 4:58pm

    ‘Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she has backed away from her support of the Russian leader, but other Western leaders are worried that she would be a weak link in a so far united front against Moscow.’
    To be fair the weakest link in the western alliance is Germany, which has become quite frankly embarressing.

  • Cj Williams 22nd Apr '22 - 8:56pm

    Martin. Germany are not supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine. See Bild. Sholz is facing both ways.
    Sholz is trying to have his cake and eat it, if this was Johnson cosying up to Putin whilst lying to the Ukranians then just imagine what the press and parliament would be demanding.

  • In the murky world of far right politics, it seems somewhat counter-intuitive that Putin’s Russia should be funding the National Rally (previously the National Front) while conducting a denazification campaign in Ukraine.
    Ms Le Pens father, Jean Louis Marie Le Pen was expelled from the party after refusing to attend his disciplinary hearing at the party for describing the gas chambers used in concentration camps during the Holocaust as a “detail” of history. In the 1960s, he lobbied for rehabilitation of the Collaborationists, declaring that:
    “Was General de Gaulle more brave than Marshal Pétain in the occupied zone? This isn’t sure. It was much easier to resist in London than to resist in France.”
    Macron appears the firm favourite in the presidential race. He made serious efforts to defuse the Ukraine crisis in the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion and may still play an important role in facilitating a negotiated settlement between Putin and Zelensky.
    The French president said dialogue with Putin was currently stalled after mass killings discovered in Ukraine. While Russia claims the killings in Bucha were staged by Ukraine the preliminary United Nations mission documented “the unlawful killing, including by summary execution, of some 50 civilians there”, from the end of February to the end of March when the town was under Russian occupation.
    Whatever the outcome of Sundays election, I fear Tom is right to conclude “the wider nationalist v supra-nationalist battle will continue to be an issue in France and almost everywhere else.”

  • Is this the same Macron that sold military hardware to Putin ie evaded an embargo, one could call it `international law`.

  • The French presidential election appears much closer than assumed according to this article in the Independent Voices: Is Marine Le Pen actually far-right? It depends who you talk to

  • TGaarten Trasch 23rd Apr '22 - 1:27pm

    We need to be arguing for UK membership of single currency and EUro Army as an intermediate step before Rejoin. This will prevent any viable exit route and neuter any attempt at a Leave 2 Referendum. Indeed, isn’t this the basic purpose of a single currency ? We will not be able to win against populism unless we close off the means by which populism can flourish – such as national level law making and referenda.

  • Cj Williams 23rd Apr '22 - 2:21pm

    On the substantive point, could it be that there is a causal link between a supranationalist united europe and a decline in democratic legitimacy as evidenced by the rise of ‘populist’ parties and politicians. Layla Moran makes the point about ‘Backsliding Democracies’ but without indicating the possible reasons why. I would suggest that various national cultures are begining to push back against the centralising mono culture of the EU. Even Macron is fearfull that France could vote to leave the EU, they did after all (along with Holland) reject the European Constitution

  • James Kinsey 23rd Apr '22 - 2:49pm

    “The price of this peace and prosperity has been curbs on national sovereignty. A majority of the British people couldn’t stomach it. They also felt that their national identity was threatened. The result was Brexit”

    Those red wall seats that labour lost (52/60) in the 2019GE wouldn’t recognize that prosperity …
    Being in the EU didn’t stop one factory from closing or save one job ..
    Only to be replaced by some faceless warehouses on the edge of town with mw rates , zhc agency work the norm, with significant eastern European labour ..
    Schengen facilitated Brexit ….. The rise of ukip & the success of Brexit party in the last EU elections should of been warning signs come the 2019 GE – both the libs & lab committed political suicide with both their Brexit policies – the rest is history…

  • Kyle Harrison 23rd Apr '22 - 4:32pm

    Britain did the EU a favour. We left and took our psycho dramas with us. The French will stay even under le Pen and mess various things up (in the eyes of the EU establishment). Just like Hungary, and to an extent, Poland. Is the EU a union of nation states or a federal arrangement in which the EU Parliament enforce a particular set of values across the continent? Can the EU be both liberal and illiberal? Can the EU contain illiberal nations such as Hungary?

  • Jenny Barnes 23rd Apr '22 - 4:52pm

    Global capitalism was supposed to make everyone better off. It didn’t. The chinese, for example were able to use low cost manufacturing and their low cost of labour to undercut western manufactures – they got richer, goods in the developed world got cheaper, so everyone seemed to be better off for a while. Then in the rich world wages as a fraction of GDP started to go down for the working & some of the middle classes, leading to considerable discontent. If whoever you vote for, global capitalism gets in, people will seek a way to derail that. Brexit was one, Ms LePen may well be another.

  • That’s why we need a stronger technocratic level that harmonises debates within a defined liberal opinion corridor that sits between – say – Guy Verhofstadt and Nick Clegg.

    There’s no room for extremes of opinion of the sort that UK Tories / UKIP advocate.

  • James Kinsey 23rd Apr '22 - 8:43pm

    ‘They want the world’s poor to know their place, as much as did the old aristocracies, banishing the lower classes, deporting those who have the temerity to enter their protected domain to Rwanda or similar’

    I billion + people live on less than a dollar a day …
    Fine words Martin but what’s the solution – do you want to invite them all into our ‘hot air’ economy ….

  • Cj Williams 23rd Apr '22 - 8:48pm

    Martin ‘such voters want to be able to continue to exploit poorer peoples and world resources. They want the world’s poor to know their place’
    Please bear in mind that I only went to a comprehensive school and that there can be no one that admires your virtue more than I do but could you please cite your source for this statement.

  • George Colvin 24th Apr '22 - 7:15am

    I think Macron should win, a French couple, we had dinner with them last Sunday. They voted Macron in 2017 and since have moaned about him being too young to know what he is doing being the main one. So round 1 they voted Melenchon, when asked who’d they would vote for today? Macron of course can’t have THAT woman (not in a sexist sense, her policies). So assuming that I would guess the majority share their view, bodes well. But suspect also the abstention rate & ‘spoiled’ ballots will increase

  • George Colvin 24th Apr '22 - 2:51pm

    Just back from Sunday lunch this week , with a 73 year old Scots guy nearby and a younger French woman, 35,, who works full-time as a ‘teaching assistant’ but still spends her Saturday’s going to his house to work for him as a ‘cleaner & do his ironing’ at a much better rate of pay.
    She’s lovely and she also worked for us briefly in the kitchen of our restaurant, early 2010’s. We get on great, she’s single, no kids either, but still struggles to pay rent & bills on minimum wage. She voted Le Pen in round 1 and will before polls close vote for her in round 2. No great surprise, but during lunch I asked her about Le Pen’s attitude to Europe, might as well have been talking to a Brexiteer pre referendum, everything would be better if France left EU/NATO/Schengen and a ‘global’ France equivalent. Basically she wanted Frexit. When I said Brexit hasn’t been brilliant, she didn’t care France would be France again with the Franc back & control of their borders & immigration. God help us, what about the Ukraine? nothing to do with us they aren’t Europe! What about no wars since WWII between France & Germany which the EU changed, shrugged her shoulders, so what? Le Pen will probably loose today, but in 2027? The French have done left, right, centre, so next time it’ll be far left vs far Right after 10 years of ‘Centralist politics’ from Macron, glad I’m in my 60’s rather than my 20’s

  • Well it’s Macron until 2027, so panic over for now.

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