French election the new front line between centrists and populists

Josie Pagani has worked in politics, aid and development.

OPINION: The front line of the never-ending battle to defend responsible democracy has moved to France.

President Emmanuel Macron will contest a run-off election against nationalist and populist Marine Le Pen.

Le Pen had to pulp millions of pamphlets picturing her cosying up to Vladimir Putin. She promises to rid France of immigrants and belittles Nato. She has previously favoured breaking up the EU (she has since dialled that back). She promises to make the cost of living cheaper by taking sales tax (similar to GST) off 100 essential products.

Emmanuel Macron, left, and Marine Le Pen.
getty images
Emmanuel Macron, left, and Marine Le Pen.

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Who wouldn’t vote for cheap stuff? Californians used to vote in referendums for lower taxes and more spending.

Macron is a centrist. He takes ideas from both left and right. But he is also a radical.

He promises to increase the retirement age (for many French, a state pension is available from 62). He made himself wildly unpopular by terminating provisions that allowed some workers, including ballet dancers and opera singers, to retire at 42.

France’s unemployment is at its lowest in decades. The economy grew by 7 per cent in 2021. The left sneer at him for being a pro-market “moderate”, but his presidency has expanded public spending as a share of GDP.

His problem, The Economist noted, is one that responsible politicians always face when running against populists. He offers policies boringly grounded in reality. Populists say whatever will stir up voters, whether or not it is true.

The French election matters.

Le Pen's weakness on Russia at this dangerous time, combined with the mayhem she would cause Europe, would give comfort and nuclear support to Putin.

Another defeat for toxic populism would set an example for the world.

Populists always sound radical. History tells us they’re not. Our lives were transformed by the minimum wage, 40-hour week, votes for women – all championed not by populists, but by politicians who listened to dissenting voices, persuaded, and built cases based on evidence.

In New Zealand we are not immune from politicians reaching for votes with promises that are popular but unrealistic.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon promises to cut taxes without saying what public services he would cut. ‘’Fiscal fairyland,’’ says Josie Pagani.
Stuff
National Party leader Christopher Luxon promises to cut taxes without saying what public services he would cut. ‘’Fiscal fairyland,’’ says Josie Pagani.

Christopher Luxon promises to cut taxes without saying what public services he would cut. Fiscal fairyland.

The Greens promise rent controls. Who doesn’t want lower rents? Rent controls are one of the most researched topics in social policy. The evidence is clear: they are terrible policy. When San Francisco introduced rent controls, fewer homes were made available to rent. Rents rocketed for apartments that were not rent-controlled. Elderly couples stayed in large houses they didn’t need because it cost too much to move, while families crowded into tiny spaces.

If there is a New Zealand politician who straddles the line between populists and effective, responsible representation, it is Michael Wood.

Labour Cabinet minister Michael Wood ‘’straddles the line between populists and effective, responsible representation’’, says Josie Pagani.
Abigail Dougherty/Stuff
Labour Cabinet minister Michael Wood ‘’straddles the line between populists and effective, responsible representation’’, says Josie Pagani.

This week he showed what transformative centrism looks like when he introduced a Modern Slavery Bill. It will require businesses to check there is no child labour in their supply chains. A child somewhere will never know the name of Michael Wood, but will avoid a life of misery thanks to him.

He is also promoting fair pay agreements to lift wages in low-paid sectors such as retail. This is not popular policy, at least not with business. But he deserves credit for a tough, evidence-based proposal to lift incomes.

And then there are his daft but populist ideas: $800 million for a cycle lane across the Auckland Harbour Bridge. A $14 billion tram to Auckland airport. They sound good, but extravagant costs make them irresponsible.

Josie Pagani: “Delivering more requires courage, and tough choices. Just handing out cash to the squeakiest wheels is easy.”
Jericho Rock-Archer/Stuff
Josie Pagani: “Delivering more requires courage, and tough choices. Just handing out cash to the squeakiest wheels is easy.”

Our leaders should learn from the fate of the two old French parties.

Socialists (similar to Labour here) held the French presidency five years ago. Republicans (previously Gaullists, closer to National here) held it for 17​ years before that.

This year, the Socialists’ candidate ran on her record of transforming Paris into a walkable, bikeable, diverse city for urban elites. She won 1.7 per cent. The Republicans flirted with the anti-diversity right, only to be outflanked by even more extreme intolerance, while moderate voters were appalled. They achieved less than 5 per cent.

Concerning themselves with priorities other than those of everyday voters has destroyed them. People want hope that their future (not just someone else’s) will be better.

Populists exploit grievances, but they don’t invent them. Moderate politicians need to beat them with better solutions to real grievances: the cost of food, petrol, housing, the struggle small businesses have for a fair go, the fear of another Covid variant.

Incrementalism is not a flaw in the system. Compromise and persuasion are the point of our democratic politics. Steady progress is how we achieve meaningful, even radical, change.

Chances are Macron’s muscular centrism will win narrowly. He proved five years ago that politics of the centre isn’t a euphemism for ‘‘mild’’, nor did it mean a lack of change.

Now French voters must choose between a populist and a radical realist. The world is watching.