You have to hand it to Louis XV of France. He may have been a mediocrity, but at least as a political risk analyst he knew the price for continual policy failure. A lowlight of his long, stagnant reign (1715-1774) was the Battle of Rossbach in 1757, where Frederick the Great of Prussia rang strategic rings around him.
Louis, upon observing the defeat of the joint Franco-Hapsburg forces, immortally replied, ‘Apres moi, le deluge,’ after me comes the flood. And in his political risk analysis, the hapless monarch was surely right; his grandson and heir, Louis XVI, was to lose his crown and his head in the French Revolution, just a generation on from Louis’s first-rate prediction.
And that is just where the European elite now finds itself, though critically unlike the prescient Louis they think they have seen off the menace to their political survival. Yet in reality, the populist flood waters are rising though the gormless commentariat is bound to get this wrong too.
I can already see the end of 2017 headlines; indeed, the false narrative is already building steam. ‘With the defeat of populists in the Netherlands, France and Germany, wise enlightened Europe (unlike its Anglo-Saxon Neanderthal cousins) has combatted populism head-on, proving itself more stable, wiser, and far more politically mature than the rest of the West. By virtue of its inherent resistance to extremism, Europe has yet again been underrated.’
I almost don’t know where to begin with this pathetic wish-fulfilment masquerading as analysis, except to say these are the very same people who over the past year were wrong about the Dutch referendum on Ukraine, wrong about Brexit, wrong about Trump, wrong about the Columbian referendum on a peace deal with the Farc rebels, and wrong about the Italian referendum. Surely at some point, their doleful analytical record should make the rest of us just a little bit leery of their grand pronouncements?
The French presidential vote is particularly instructive. Yes, as I have long said, Emmanuel Macron will be elected to the Elysee palace, and by a decisive margin. And in doing so, the odds are he will become Louis XV, the last member of a rotting elite to haplessly fail to grapple with the revolutionary forces that are swirling all around him.
Far from saving France and the EU (as much of the breathless left would have us believe), there is absolutely no empirical evidence that Macron can reform a reactionary country which would like it much better if globalisation had simply never happened.
For the most worrying thing about French politics is that presently it is only the far-right, xenophobic Front National (FN) and its champion, Marine Le Pen, who seem to understand political risk analysis.
Here is their calculation. Le Pen will get 35% plus of the vote in this Sunday’s second round of the presidential vote, double the support her father received in the second round of the 2002 presidential election. By this real-world metric, support for the FN has doubled in under a generation, as the flood waters rise to the chins of the highly gormless French elite. As such, Macron as Louis XV, is the last, best, chance for the current political order in France to save itself.
But Macron has no political party behind him. Indeed, a salient point of the 2016 election has been that, for the first time in the history of the French Fifth Republic, the two mainstream parties of the left and the right—the Socialists and the Republicans—do not have candidates in the final round of the presidential contest. The elite is hallowed out and discredited. June’s two-stage parliamentary elections will not give Macron’s En Marche movement (created just a year ago) a majority in parliament.
As such, Macron will have to (in the quite short span of five years) fundamentally reform heretofore unreformable French society, and do so without any sort of parliamentary majority. Add in the tragic reality that France will probably endure another major terrorist attack or so per year over the next five years, and the far more likely political risk outcome is that, by the end of his term, Macron will have not significantly lifted France’s economic growth numbers, or made the French feel more safe.
That is what Le Pen and the FN are betting on, and frankly, it seems the most likely outcome. She has always been playing for the next French election, not this one. Macron may surprise, he may be the reincarnation of FDR and shrewdly transform France politically and economically. But the far more likely outcome is that he will fail.
In either case, one thing is for certain. Rather than signalling Europe’s decisive victory over populism, Macron represents the continent’s last desperate gasp to avoid being Louis XVI.
Published in City AM London, May 2, 2017.