When rulers are out of touch, voters fall for extremists’ snake-oil solutions

Published in The Daily Mail (April 24th, 2012)

However you cut it, Sunday’s presidential election in France was a profoundly depressing result: not just for the French, but for the rest of Europe. By showing how extremist politicians can exploit widespread public disaffection with the political class, it has exposed the huge scale of the challenge facing our complacent democracies.

Yes, Nicolas Sarkozy, a poor president, failed to live up to his promises and received a deserved drubbing. But the result also showed that there is little enthusiasm for the old-fashioned Socialism of his rival, Francois Hollande, who offers only the failed solutions of the past with more public spending and hefty taxes looming for businesses and the rich.

It now looks as if this party apparatchik who has never held ministerial office — and who presided over Correze, the most debt-ridden region of France, which had to be bailed out from state coffers — is poised to take over the world’s fifth-biggest economy at a time of immense global flux.

France, like other European countries, faces massive social and economic problems. But as we have seen again in this election, its political class is despised by large swathes of an insecure electorate.

Bloodied but unbowed, Sarkozy was straight back on the election trail yesterday, fighting for his political life after the ignominy of becoming the first sitting president in French history to lose the first-round vote.

In typical fashion, this street-fighter of a politician was instantly trying to seize the initiative by challenging Hollande to a series of debates over the next fortnight and wooing those who turned out in such large numbers for the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. 

Having spent the past few days of the election apologising for his brash behaviour in office, Sarkozy was telling voters in the beautiful Loire Valley he had heard their verdict. He would be different next time, he promised, but only he could be trusted to grapple with the vast challenges facing France.

It would be foolish to write off such a formidable campaigner, who relishes being the underdog — especially when up against the lacklustre Mr Hollande. But while the result of Sunday’s vote was closer than predicted, it seems likely we are witnessing the final days in office of President Bling-Bling. 

The electoral mathematics remain complex, the electorate uncertain and unpredictable, but France is preparing to roll out the red carpet at the Elysee Palace for the unassuming Left-winger nicknamed Monsieur Marshmallow, who will be the first Socialist president of France elected in 24 years if he wins the run-off on May 6.

For all Sarkozy’s successes abroad, including rallying the coalition to intervene in Libya and playing a significant role in saving Europe from economic meltdown after the 2008 banking crisis, French voters are fed up with his flashy lifestyle, his fondness for money and his friendships with the super-rich.

In truth, they never really warmed to this diminutive man who does not drink wine, dislikes smelly cheeses, demeaned the presidential office and is married to an unpopular Italian born-supermodel. They feel reassured by the more familiar provincialism of the scooter-driving Mr Hollande. 

The election is his to lose now as the pair fight for the votes of their eight eliminated rivals, with polls predicting an eight-point victory. Nearly all the votes of the far Left will fall into Mr Hollande’s lap, so the result depends on the six million disaffected voters lured by the anti-Europe, anti-foreigner and anti-globalisation rhetoric of Le Pen. 

But how shocking to see more than one in three voters in a seemingly sophisticated nation such as France — a permanent member of the United Nations security council, remember — seduced by the snake-oil solutions proffered by these extremist candidates.

It matters little whether they fell for the ranting of the hard Left with their crazy demands for 100 per cent taxes on the rich, or for the mendacious opportunism of the far Right under the skilful populism of Le Pen. The fact is that French politicians dare not talk truth to their voters.

Instead, they all offer varying degrees of simplistic sloganising, protectionism and anti-capitalist rhetoric. ‘We have to protect the French way of life,’ said Sarkozy yesterday, even as he admitted voters are fearful and anxious.

This is the conservatism suffocating France and being exploited by the demagogues. Here is a country, after all, that is spending so much more than it can afford on its bloated and sclerotic state that it has already lost its precious triple-A credit rating and faces far greater pain in the future.

The French state is far fatter than in countries such as Britain, Germany and Italy; indeed, it is now even bigger than Scandinavian nations, with the number of state employees rising nearly 20 per cent over the past decade and debt soaring under Sarkozy.

On top of this, there is a self-defeating antagonism towards capitalism and wealth creation fanned by politicians on all sides, despite the economy relying heavily on nearly 200 highly successful globalised firms employing at least 5,000 people each.

‘They are seen as the personification of evil in France on both the Left and Right,’ Eudoxe Denis, from the Institute of Enterprise think-tank, told me. ‘They are our competitive advantage but politicians do not want to support them.’

Into such gaps step the likes of Le Pen. Her astonishing success — garnering more votes even than her father when he made it through to the second round run-off in 2002 — mirrors advances made across Europe by anti-establishment extremists exploiting resentment over the debt crisis, unemployment, immigration and the teetering euro project.

And, of course, we are not immune to seeing such tactics in Britain, where politicians are disliked and distrusted, MPs often seem interchangeable and removed from the real world and political parties have collapsed to such an extent that the Caravan Club now has more members than all three of the main parties combined.

As in Europe, for all the sound and fury, there is a comfortable consensus in Westminster on some of the biggest issues facing the country at odds with the views of millions of voters. Just think of issues such as withdrawing from the European Union, pulling out of Afghanistan, restoring the death penalty, cutting foreign aid or even legalising drugs.

Little wonder that in an age when deference is dead and technology is amplifying opinions, the number of people saying they will vote for anyone other than one of the three mainstream parties has doubled since the last General Election, with UKIP leapfrogging the hapless Liberal Democrats in two polls last week.

Just as in Europe, insurgents are skilfully capitalising on this growing anti-Westminster mood. Witness the way George Galloway stole the recent Bradford by-election from under the nose of Labour, or the success of the opportunistic Alex Salmond in Scotland.

Across Europe, leaders are looking incompetent or irrelevant — and often both. In Greece, which is being crucified on the cross of its adherence to the euro, polls predict that a plethora of extremist parties will enter parliament in next month’s elections, leaving the shrunken two main parties unable to form a majority government.

In Spain, where more than half the young are unemployed and austerity is tightening its grip, people are even falling out of love with the monarchy, the institution that saved democracy from an attempted coup in 1981 and unifies this fragmented nation.

These are difficult days for Europe. Our politicians need to move fast to re-engage with their voters if they are not to become dangerous days. For as we have seen in France, the simple equation is that if there is a political void, it will be filled.

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