Bonjour Tristesse?

I’m not a particular fan of the round ball game although “’er indoors” is and so it came to pass that I sat through most of the England 11’s lamentable display of what is supposed to be the beautiful game against poor Slovakia who must feel as though they was robbed. Rarely have the immortal words of motorcycle racing legend Guy Martin carried greater weight. When asked about football – please permit me to remind my American friends that football is, surprise, surprise, a game played with the feet – Martin who customarily risked his life in leathers and a helmet commented: “I have nothing against football. It just seems very wasteful losing two hours of my life to watch 22 millionaires on TV chasing a bag full of wind in their underwear”. How to go from zeroes to heroes. Alas, when the game was over, we popped into the kitchen for some supper and for me to catch up on the results of the first round of the French parliamentary elections. And in its own way that wasn’t any more exciting.

“Breaking News: Far-right greatest winner”. No sh*t Sherlock. I chose to watch France 24, the English-speaking French news channel where one talking head after the other declared that everything must be done to prevent the Rassemblement National from seizing power and democracy from being put at risk. Sorry ladies and gentlemen, they are not about to seize power. The people of France, or in the first round of voting 34 per cent of those amongst the electorate who chose to vote, gave Marine Le Pen and the National Rally (RN) the thumbs up against 29.1 per cent for the left-wing New Popular Front coalition (and a humble 22 per cent for Macron’s centrist Ensemble coalition. Had this been the UK, with a First Past the Post electoral system, then Le Pen would, according to the count at the time of writing, have waltzed off with 297 of the 577 seats in the Assemblée Nationale. But it was not and the final outcome after the second round next Sunday will surely look very different.

We saw it in the Netherlands, and we will see it again in France. Any politician who is not of the far right, the hard right or whatever euphemism you might prefer, will be calling for non-cooperation with the party which has received most support from the voters. To their chagrin this is not like some of the referenda on EU treaties in the 1990s when electorates that had declined to approve their ratification were sent back to vote again until they came up with the right result. I have in the past more than once quoted the Berthold Brecht poem which he wrote in the aftermath of the 1953 anti-government protest in the nascent GDR and in which he sardonically proposed that if the government didn’t like it, it could dissolve the people and elect itself a new one. The folks on France 24 were essentially wondering how they could deny 34 per cent of French voters the right to be represented in the government of their country.

I have for several decades watched the inexorable rise of centrifugal politics and have again and again asked why the centre’s only response has been to moan about it being anti-democratic? They have kept on assuring the electorate that they are listening. They might be, but they are not hearing the parts of it that they do not want to hear. I think the most revealing piece on the mood amongst French voters was written by Gavin Mortimer in The Spectator in which he very simply and without any socio-political psychobabble sketches just how remote the Parisian Grandes Ecoles elite has become from the wider population in the provinces. Lo and behold, it is through general elections that the people can speak, and they are telling those who still refuse to listen and who treat them as morons that they feel they have been let down.

On Saturday, before we had seen the French first round results, I wrote to The Spectator: “It is with astonishing perceptiveness that Gavin Mortimer has captured the sense of alienation that provincial France feels towards the urban elite and the path it will take to strike back. How ironic is it that, by the time I have received my next copy of the Speccie, we in Britain will have elected to government a party that represents self-same urban superiority and disdain for traditional values held dearly by much of the country. We are not bigoted. We are not racist. We just like to be left to continue to do things the way we have done, and the way which seems to work. People will not vote for Labour but against the Tories and, in doing so, will put themselves in the very position which the people of provincial France will be voting to escape.”

Democracy is not, as those many TV pundits would have us believe, failing from the bottom up. It has for a long time been failing from the top down and gradually over a prolonged period the electorate has lost faith in those who purport to represent them in parliament. Voters have been treated as polling fodder expected to unquestioningly return the respective political parties’ little helpers to seats in parliament. An increasing number of those little helpers have spent years working for the party in fairly menial head office research jobs for which they will in time be rewarded with a seat and a parliamentary vote. The criticism that they lack “real-life experience” is not entirely without justification. They claim to have the interests of their constituents at the top of their agenda. Yeah, yeah sure. A recent piece released by one of our local constituency offices is reported to have not even been able to get the name of the district in which it sits right by referring to West Oxfordshire as Western Oxfordshire.

Democracy is not in trouble. It is the people who believed they own it who are. And they blithely sail on while refusing to ask themselves what it might be that has driven formerly solid middle-of-the-road voters to desert them in droves. These are not protest votes. This is decades-old electoral loyalty torched by perceived moral superiority and social alienation.

Today is 1 July and the beginning of the second half and third quarter. It is also, as far as markets rather than meteorologists are concerned, the first day of summer. The first German states will be breaking up soon, followed by French schools and then, later in July, the British ones too. Market liquidity will gradually fade which, given the many changes to Europe’s political landscape and the increasing probability of a Trump victory in November, augurs higher levels of volatility. We go into H2/2024 knowing that the sum of questions by far exceeds the sum of answers. Markets have had plenty of time to discount the more or less inevitable outcome of the UK elections and they have so far shown little worry. As I have said before, the faces might change but the policy options won’t. The outcome of the French situation, however, is less clear.

If the French centre supports the left in order to block the right, it will be going from the frying pan into the fire. If it abstains, it will be opening the road for the right. I think it was Woody Allen who as a young stand-up comedian quipped, “I was trying to do to this girl what President Eisenhower is doing to the country”.  France is truly between a rock and a hard place. It might be worth reading up again on how the early post-revolutionary assembly struggled and how the Jacobins Danton, Marat, de Saint-Just, and Robespierre emerged from the catfight.

Note that not only was Marine Le Pen excluded from the cosy closed-door selection process which has Ursula von der Leyen proposed for a second term as President of the European Commission, but so was Giorgia Meloni. Did I not earlier suggest that if democracy is failing, it is not from the bottom up but from the top down? It is because large swathes of the population no longer feel that those whom they have elected to represent them and their interests in any way actually do so. Had the incumbents made a better job of it, they would today not be facing the populist backlash. Is that so hard to understand? Apparently so.

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