France’s Neither-Nor Election

Source: Raphaël Liogier in The New York Times, April 12, 2017

…Mr. Macron’s En Marche…bypasses the traditional left-right divide. Instead of invoking nostalgia for the past or trying to comfort an anxious people, Mr. Macron tries to present a positive view of the future, along the way restoring to the word “libéralisme” its original meaning, with its broad endorsement of individual liberties.

In the early 1980s, playing on the French national motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” people would say that the right’s priority was liberty while the left’s was equality. Libéralisme, still widely understood only in economic terms, had grown more and more objectionable, on both the left and the right, especially when it came with the prefix “neo.” “Le néo-liberalisme” had become the antithesis of French values, the very image of social injustice and the ruthlessness of the marketplace.

In fact, the right was rather liberal in its economics and reactionary on societal questions like morality and sexuality, whereas the left was liberal on societal issues and statist on economic and social matters.

Mr. Macron has broken away from this polarity, offering a version of liberalism that applies down the line, from societal matters to economics.

Ms. Le Pen, too, has moved away from the dichotomy, but in her case by being a reactionary on societal issues and a statist on economic and social questions.

And so the two leading candidates offer antagonistic views of globalization, Europe and laïcité, France’s staunch form of secularism. The Le Pen view of laïcité, for example, is defensive, favoring French culture over foreign religions. For Mr. Macron, laïcité is a liberal value that promotes individual freedom of religion.

France isn’t unique in this respect. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is another case in point. Though she is a product of the center-right Christian-Democrat tradition, on societal issues like immigration she hews close to Social-Democrat positions typically considered left-wing. A new ideological debate thus seems to be redefining political discourse in France and elsewhere in the West: between populist movements that are culturally and economically protectionist, and liberals who are open to Europe and globalization. Soon enough the left and the right will be all but vestiges of an already bygone 20th century.

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