Tags: france | populist | presidential election

France to Experience the Next Populist Revolt?

France to Experience the Next Populist Revolt?

Former French Prime Minister Francois Fillion on July 2, 2008. (Rogerio Barbosa/AFP/Getty Images)

Monday, 09 January 2017 11:44 AM Current | Bio | Archive

As French voters prepare to choose a president in 2017, it appears they are tired of political business as usual and may be igniting a populist explosion.

On the left, socialist President Francois Hollande's approval rating was so low that he announced on December 1, 2016, he would not seek a second term.

On the right, former prime minister Francois Fillion, a dedicated conservative, easily beat his moderate opponent Alain Juppé in the November 27 Republican Party runoff election.

Fillion, who describes himself as a member of "the right of the right," is a practicing Catholic, opposed to same-sex marriage, and on economics, is a "supply sider."

Then there is the leader of the radical National Front Party, Marine LePen, a serious third-party contender in this year's presidential election. Outspoken on the migrant crisis and a critic of the EU, LePen hovers at about 30 percent in national polls.

To understand what's been happening in France, I recommend Jonathan Fenby's new book, "France: A Modern History from the Revolution to the War with Terror."

Fenby, a noted British journalist and investment consultant, wrote the critically acclaimed "The General: Charles DeGaulle and the France He Saved" and was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government for his "contribution toward understanding between Britain and France."

Fenby argues that since the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789, the French have been "prisoners of the heritage of their past." By this he means they see themselves "as the bearer of a special mission bequeathed by their history to promote the Declaration of the Rights of Man" and their republican civil religion.

On the other hand, the present fiscal, economic, and cultural malaise contradicts the average French persons' vision of France as a shining example of a nation of progress.

This anxiety has been growing since Charles DeGaulle, the first president of the Fifth Republic, left the political stage in 1969. The monarchial constitution created by Le Grande Charles may have worked well for him but not for his successors who have not been able to fill his shoes. This helps explain why today Fenby reports 90 percent of the French do not "believe their elected president could handle the problems facing them, [and] this leaves them feeling deprived of what they feel should be theirs by historic right and opens them to the temptation of extremist illusions."

This "declinist" attitude has been fueled by income stagnation, long-term joblessness, ever-growing government deficits, onerous government administrative and welfare regulations that discourage domestic and international economic investments, and widens the gulf between the population and the ruling elite "who know about everything, except everyday life."

Icons that have underpinned the nation for so long, Fenby observes, have also fallen to the wayside. "The franc gave way to the Euro common currency ... Churches cut services and France counted more psychiatrists than priests. Even with state subsidies of 500 million Euros a year, newspapers suffered even more than their peers elsewhere."

To add to this strain, there is the immigration crisis and the terrorist attacks that killed 240 and injured 480 during the past two years. While Muslims constitute 7.5 percent of France's population, they are 60 percent of the prison population.

As a result, a 2013 Gallup poll indicated that the French are the most depressed people on earth. Another study conducted by UNICEF revealed that 43 percent of French adolescents have psychological difficulties, 41 percent consume alcohol, and 32 percent abuse drugs.

These findings explain why 80 percent of young people prefer to seek employment in another country and why the flight of people over sixty to another country rose by 10 percent between 2011-2013.

This level of unhappiness may cause a populist uprising in 2017 that elects a right-wing president committed to real structural government and economic reforms.

Yet if this comes to pass, the real question is, will the French, who have been spoiled by short work weeks, long vacations, early retirement, and big pensions, be willing to accept entitlement downsizing?

Whomever the winner, that person should heed the 2014 comment of former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, "If you tell the French the truth and propose a remedy, you are sure to be beaten."

George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact." He also is a columnist for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. Read more reports from George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.

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As French voters prepare to choose a president in 2017, it appears they are tired of political business as usual and may be igniting a populist explosion.
france, populist, presidential election
Monday, 09 January 2017 11:44 AM
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