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Defeating Marine Le Pen on Sunday will be a relief—but what next?

It might be a little early to say I told you so, but Macron will win on Sunday, and Marine Le Pen will be defeated.  Still, we need to move away from paying attention to populist parties and their voters only at election time.  We all know the problem runs deeper—and that elections are only one measure of it.

When I wrote a paper in February (parts of which were published in The Guardian) about why Le Pen was in no position to win—indeed, why Le Pen’s position was probably weaker (given her standing in her party) than anyone thought–my views were at best thought to be ‘brave’ and ‘optimistic’, and at worst taken as a clear sign that I was courting disaster for everyone–myself included.

But, barring  – god forbid – either a major terrorist attack in the next 48 hours or what FiveThirtyEight refer to as a ‘gargantuan polling error’ — and despite the hacking of En Marche! email accounts and leaked documents — Emmanuel Macron will be the next President of the French Republic.

I’m glad he will have won (and not just as default candidate); I’m glad she couldn’t win—and that we knew it; I’m glad that this might have put a stop to the ‘populist domino effect theory’ borne of a mix of over-correction bias after Brexit and Trump, a bit of reluctance to jinx, and some cheap thrill-seeking; I’m glad that we provided our clients and partners with the kind of in depth research that enabled them to hold their nerve in the face of a deluge of apocalyptic scenarios—that we gave them explanations and texture, rather than abstract, floating numbers.  Although the numbers were good too.

But I also know that whatever his score (probably in the region of 61/62%, with luck a smidgen more) this will seem paltry in comparison to what Chirac scored in 2002 against Le Pen father (82%). It will also come at the end of a crass campaign against the FN, one that tended to bring out the worst in everyone, and that prevented any meaningful debate.

So, this is a double ‘I told you so’.

Nearly ten years ago I wrote a book about why certain kinds of institutional set-ups were perfect for the growth of populism.  My argument was that is the FN not an aberration in the French Fifth Republic, and that the Republic’s institutions are, in some ways, an ideal set of opportunities for a party like the FN. And that Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ‘talent’, was to crack the Fifth Republic’s code, and to make the FN gradually at home in it.  He did this by correctly evaluating the importance of the presidential race; by systematically building the kind of party needed to take part in that race; by drawing on France’s reservoir of far-right intellectuals (not many places have real intellectuals on the far right); by exploiting and distorting the Gaullist vocabulary and imaginary about France; and by capitalising on the particular mix of attachment to ‘terroir’ and of statism that characterises French politics.  All this meant that, despite an electoral system stacked against it, the FN was able to grow, evolve, and continue to implant its ideas.

This is where we are now: at the realisation that defeating the FN electorally is both necessary and feasible—but that actually beating it is both more difficult and more urgent.

It is difficult for several reasons—

First, because while the FN may undergo a crisis in the short term (and it probably will—Marine will be forced out, possibly to be replaced by her niece, possibly by someone else, the party will tack to the right, and Marine might then position herself and her movement Bleu Marine as a robust party of the right—it could happen!), it is no stranger to crisis; it’s been there before and can recompose and revive itself.  It did so in the late 90s only to grow stronger subsequently.

Second, because FN voters – whatever their misreading of the party they choose and its capacity to deliver better outcomes – exist.  And for many there is no obvious alternative, aside from simply switching off.  Whatever they choose, neither of these is a satisfactory option for a functioning, diverse, demanding democracy that needs citizen input to work.

Third, it is difficult because, of course, this particular battle is being fought within French parameters but we know we are dealing with similar developments elsewhere:  these parties and movements share a DNA and feed off a resentment and a disappointment that is borne of a combination of pressures: economic, cultural, demographic; As well as major transformations in the world of media and tech, that have transformed expectations, access, networks and habits.  Citizens have been faced with nothing short of a revolution in their everyday lives as well as in their prospects–and absolutely 0 institutional adaptation or solutions to this new world.  By this I mean that despite the tectonic shifts that have shaken our world, we all of us, have so far failed to provide alternatives and solutions that would enable everyone to ride this tiger: no new national or local systems of representation, largely unreconstructed political parties, no new forums for collective decision-making, largely incapacitated international institutions and organisations, no new, effective systems for the sharing and development of expertise and almost no adaptation to new educational or skills requirements.  Our lack of institutional creativity means that we have left it to the law of the cloud and the law of the market.  In light of this, many voters have turned to the parties least able to help, but most vociferous on the costs of the failure, and most ready to promise a return to an imagined, safer past.

A matter of urgency

So, the task is urgent because, while our current electoral systems may sometimes work against populist parties such as the FN, our current politics and institutions will stoke their fires. The paradox we must address is that those very institutions that still occasionally protect us from populist wins, are the very same ones that fuel the anger.

With En Marche! Emmanuel Macron has possibly set something small but promising in motion: something that capitalises on a general appetite for meaningful local involvement as well as desire to move beyond a simple left/right political dichotomy by adding a dash of social liberalism (an exotic component for France, not seen since the days of Giscard d’Estaing).  More importantly perhaps given his youth and enthusiasm, there is a ‘can do’ attitude about him and his movement that comes as welcome relief for some after two decades of immobilism.

But whatever good things Macron may be to some, he has failed to convince many—and he will have to govern in their name and with them as well.  The urgent, and necessary task, will therefore be to govern in ways that systematically address the resentment and alienation of those who abstained and of those who voted for the FN.  This does not mean agreeing or appeasing (tactical flirtations with ‘populism light’ are a disaster—the UK can attest to the utter failure of that line of conduct), but it does mean making every single decision through the long term prism of democratic vitality; This is the only way to ensure that, beyond electoral wins, the appeal of populism is gradually diminished. At the very minimum, this means–

  • A dedicated task-force in every government department in order to evaluate the impact of every policy decision on those who are tempted by extremist or populist political options. This needs to be done in ways that go beyond a cynical endeavour in which citizens are reduced to mere statistics, and micro groups to be contained electorally–but as citizens with which to continually engage. A willingness then to explain and re-frame (and not necessarily amend) measures and policies.
  • Carrying out analysis and research that is sensitive to historical and cultural context, to citizens’ everyday experiences of inequality of access, status, and means. Engage, document, map.
  • Putting to good use the granular understanding that data collection and big data provide and address local inequalities (of access, status and means) systematically and forensically. The maps show it: this is also a local, geographical issue.
  • A commitment to developing new forms of education and skills acquisition which we know are the key factor in people’s capacity to manage the changes unleashed by globalisation and to take advantage of whatever new opportunities it brings.  All of our research demonstrates that this is the only long-term way of defeating populism: giving people the skills and confidence to face the future.
  • Avoiding the temptation of pure technocracy and opting instead to elaborate a shared vision of expertise—not crowd-sourced, but co-created through forums and dialogues in which experts share a conversation and their expertise with experienced connoisseurs and knowledgeable users to find and propose solutions together.

These are the urgent, minimum requirements to move beyond the containment of populism and toward lasting, democratic solutions.

London, May 5th 2017

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