By Jerry Chiang
For many American voters in the past election cycle, the offensive bravado and hawkish wave of populism that ushered Donald Trump into the White House appeared like a one-off in the modern history of Western politics; but they may be surprised to find their European counterparts facing the same flurry of aggressive nationalism.
Amidst the presidential campaign season in France, Trump finds a rival demagogue in presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen, who leads France’s Far-Right party, the National Front. As one of two finalists in the second and final round of the contentious election, Le Pen has so far, run an efficient campaign touting unapologetic French nationalism, placing second in first round polls.
And while many commentators believe Emmanuel Macron, the frontrunner whom she barely edged out in first round polls, is the favorite to win (déjà vu?), fears over low voter turnout and the specter of Russian intervention could boost Le Pen’s chances.
So, what has been Le Pen’s secret to performing so well in the campaign thus far? Globalization—and more precisely, the rhetoric against it. Responding to the discontent of many of her working and lower class countrymen, Le Pen has made globalization the enemy of her campaign. In a fiery speech last month, she denounced globalization as an evil force that has undermined French labor by making iPhones and Big Macs ubiquitous around the world and has promoted terror attacks in France and elsewhere by undermining the ability of nations to regulate their own borders. Perhaps her boldest act—which also incidentally drew the largest cheers among crowds—was in asserting that economic globalization has prompted another form of globalization: Islamist fundamentalism.
This déjà vu moment is not unique to Le Pen, nor Trump, nor the emerging cast of dystopian Far-Right characters in Europe. It is rather, I would argue, the result of political opportunism. Few rational commentators would argue that Trump, as a billionaire businessman who benefited under the neoliberal trickle-down economics of the Reagan Era, is particularly genuine in his denunciations of market globalism, inflammatory rhetoric that has resonated with the anxious white working class that propelled him into office. I would suggest the same for Le Pen, who hails from a family of wealthy industrialists. And so it seems that globalization has become a convenient catch-all issue for politicians; a “dog whistle” that exploits the voting masses’ hatred and fear of immigration, terrorism, political elitism, and eroding sense of national sovereignty and identity.
In looking back over the last 40 years, it isn’t hard to see why globalization is so easily antagonized. In the 80s and 90s, it was lauded en masse by political and corporate elites as an inevitable catalyst for progress; in the 1990s, France would have its own short-lived experiment in neoliberal policies under the contentious presidency of Jacques Chirac. As for issues of national sovereignty and immigration, we need only look over to the United Kingdom and its controversial referendum (or “Brexit”) to leave the EU, an institution, many, including Le Pen’s supporters, argue to be undemocratic. They cite in recent times, meddling by the EU in matters of immigration as well as national defense, and fault globalization and its processes of political integration as undermining French sovereignty and propagating terrorism—for reasons not many can adequately defend, other than simply a lack of strong border defense and “the clash of civilizations.” Déjà vu.
While there may be legitimate arguments to be made about a lack of democracy and accountability under these supranational institutions, the major critique of neoliberal rhetoric and policies that accelerated globalization has been centered around its promotion of hyper-competition and global wealth inequality. It’s in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, that French voters were confronted with this devastation. They would attribute this failure to the confluence of neoliberal corporate greed and oust the pro-business administration of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative, to narrowly elect François Hollande, a socialist. But Hollande’s inability to address declining labor opportunities, and more recently, to act more firmly on issues dealing with immigration and domestic terrorism, added another dimension to the frustration of the masses. While the 2008 financial crisis was largely attributed to corporate irresponsibility under despicable neoliberal policies, voters now scorn immigrants as pawns in these impersonal market processes that favor cheap outsourcing to the detriment of the “honest, hardworking” French citizen. Arguably, there is a certain comfort to be found in this nationalist rhetoric—no matter how aggressive or simple.
And while Marine Le Pen is expected to lose, what’s far more important is how we may temper economic road bumps and cultural hiccups that come along with globalization and minimize the “isms” and phobias that arise when fringe groups are legitimized and empowered by frustrated, everyday citizens. This is difficult, and may require an honesty among our politicians and a faith among our voting citizenry to resist the call of populism and radical nationalism. In other words, it is far more likely for Le Pen and others to capture elections in France and other places in Europe than for a hopeful, but realistic pragmatism in politics to navigate the narrow straits of globalization and all that comes with it.
Jerry Chiang is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley