Saturday, 27 October 2012



In this post, I will move away from the traditional economic topic I tend to write about here to a more political one. Yet, of course, politics affect economic policies and it is not for nothing that the economic science was first known as political economy. Furthermore, while I will be talking about France specifically, I think similar conclusions could be drawn in many European countries. Therefore, I hope  the reader will find these musings of interest.


"Alternance" (alternating) seems to guide most recent western political history and definitely the recent French political system. One side gets to power, sometimes on a wave of usually short lived enthusiasm, then either mucks things up or at least fails to deliver the good things it was expected to and then loses power to the other side… A few years later, the cycle repeats itself. Supposedly, this is a good thing. I do not think so. A constant cycle of failure to deliver does not do politicians credit and may eventually push voters, tired of the "same old, same old" to the extremes. I will not be breaking any new ground of political sciences by saying that crises are fertile ground for extremism. 


In Europe in general and in France in particular, it seems to me that the situation is as follow: The Right has a relatively clear idea of where it wants to go. It want the country to be more like the United States of America. By this, I mean that the Right wants France to be more business friendly, to "reward success and hard work", to provide a less heavily taxed and regulated environment, coupled with a smaller government and a more 'liberalised' labour market. It uses slogans like 'The France of the early risers', describes the state and regulations as the stranglers of entrepreneurship and often tries to appeal to a broad segment of the population by stigmatising the un-employed or the under-employed and immigrants as 'lazy' and 'parasites'. This works well, up to a point, especially in 'normal' times, when there isn't an acute crisis to prove this description of reality tragically inadequate. But, whether in crisis or not, when the right tries to make significant changes to the actual status quo and to actually chip at the government-sponsored pillars of the middle class (the really big ticket items), French (and most European) voters tend to rebel and refuse to endorse such reforms.

The Left, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have a very clear agenda at all – they certainly don't share the Right's dream of becoming more like the USA. But they have not articulated a clear alternative beyond defending the status quo. 'Let's keep our forefathers' social benefits and entitlement programs' is their motto. Usually, this is not the kind of rallying cry that would electrifies troops and get people enthused. But, in the past two decades, it has come to reflect a wide enough sentiment of things getting worse as time goes by, with a necessity for people to hold on fast to whatever advantages, benefits and privileges they were able to grab in the good decades of long gone better times, to get them elected on an alternating  basis. «Keep all you can and, if, tomorrow, it turns out it was all unsustainable, well, today at least, you'll be a-okay» seems to be the attitude…

The Left is supposed to be progressive but, in the face of an economic reality they do not understand, can't really explain or, at the very least, do not know how to deal with, they've shown themselves pretty conservative. The Right, on the other hand, far from being conservative is actually rather revolutionary. Indeed, if there was a main difference in economic policies between the US Right and the French Right, I would suggest that it is that the US Right is trying to bring about a second Conservative Revolution (more tax cuts for the wealthy and an even more radical destruction of the social safety net under the pretext of deficit reduction) while the French Right is still trying to get the French people to buy into the first Conservative Revolution (Reaganomics/Thatcherism) beyond liking a few of its slogans and handing them over a couple of shallow electoral victories.


There we have it: Vote left and nothing changes, by design. Vote right and, despite the rhetoric  nothing changes because the French and most mainland Europeans aren't about to experiment with Thatcherism. Not only are they unwilling to take the short-term pain it clearly involves but the long-term gains are no longer so obvious or believable after the 2007-8 crisis and the un-ending quagmire we're living through.

It is of the utter urgency, in my humble opinion, that the French (and European) Left find a project for itself and re-discover how to be a force for change.


  1. Hi Fred,

    This is an interesting one.

    The argument that you're making here strikes me as a similar one to one of the points which Keith Jenkins makes in Rethinking History (i.e. that there has been a general drift to the right over time). As I understand it, Jenkins is also a staunch socialist.

    My view, as a conservative, is quite the reverse: that the electorate as a whole are moving away from both socially conservative and economically liberal positions.

    So, it looks as though neither of us are getting what we want. We both feel that the political parties we support are struggling to hold the line, and that the other side have the upper hand.


    1. James,

      I truly apologise for the extreme long delay in replying. I suspect that what happened is that I deleted the email telling me I had a comment to answer to.

      As to the substance, I am not sure I am really saying electorates are moving to the right in Europe. Sure, the extreme right is popular but, apart from some socially conservative fig leaves, they're not classically conservative either and certainly not economically liberal.

      I was more trying to say that neither the right nor the left have the answers to our problems, the right because they're wrong and the left because they're too timid to do anything serious about the problems... :)