Features Australia

Major parties collapsing

The French election is a harbinger of what’s to come

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

Want evidence of there being a big problem right now with mainstream political parties in the West? A fortnight or so ago in the first round of the French presidential election the centre-right Gaullist party, the one which has ruled France for most of the post-1958 Fifth Republic era, scored 4.7 per cent of the vote.  Five years ago in 2017 the Gaullists received 20 per cent, and that was considered bad.  Meanwhile on the left, the main establishment party is the Socialists. This is the party that gave us President Hollande as recently as 2012-2017 and a while before that the two-term President Mitterrand. In the first round the Socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, received 1.74 per cent of the vote. (I went to two decimal points to be kind, you understand. I would have rounded up if only Ms Hidalgo had eked out another one-hundredth of a percent of the vote. Quelle domage!)

For context, a hard-left party (so a party that’s left of a party that calls itself ‘the Socialists’) ran a candidate who won 22 per cent of the vote; Marine Le Pen scooped up 23 and a bit per cent; and Emmanuel Macron scored just under 28 per cent. Only Le Pen’s party (or the predecessor to it as she changed the name of the old National Front party to the new ‘National Rally’) has existed for more than the blink of a political eye.

Normally the journalists in the ABC and the rest of the mainstream media use the term ‘populist’ as a substitute for ‘too conservative for our liking’ or ‘we hate Orange Hair Man’.  But to the extent the term is something other than a term of abuse by the bien pensant class it generally refers to politicians and parties that are explicitly against the established political class and are appealing directly to the voters (sort of what you’re supposed to do in a democracy, right?). On those sort of criteria Emmanuel Macron was a populist par excellence. (It’s great to get some value for money from all my French language classes growing up in Canada, n’est ce pas?) Journalists just didn’t call him a populist because they like his pro-EU, uber-progressive views. So it’s about the side not the principles.

Macron ran explicitly against the two main established parties as the personification of some sort of Tony Blair-like third way garçon, who spouted incomprehensible (even in English) guff about centrism, wrapped up in ineffable banalities. And Monsieur Macron was clearly the best of the 2017 bunch. That’s how far the two main parties had fallen, the ones that had provided all the Fifth Republic presidents till then.

Well, these sort of ‘we voters are sick and tired of our political class’ outcomes are first seen in presidential systems with directly elected presidents. You can run as a political TV journalist and scoop up 7 per cent of the vote, as M. Zemmour did, thereby beating the combined first-round totals of the Gaullists and the Socialists. Incroyable!

I’m tempted here to point out how legacy journalists these days weaponise labels.  Take Marine Le Pen. The BBC has unofficially given her a new first name, ‘hard right’. But take a look at her policies. More than anything she looks like the ‘free stuff’ (les trucs gratuit?) candidate who sees no limit to what she’s prepared to spend. (She’s not ‘Joshing’ about that, though there’s a similar proclivity to our Libs, certainement.) Leave aside her immigration policies and her aversion to Muslim women wearing anything that covers their faces and her policies are all left-leaning. All of them. Well, they’re left in the old-fashioned redistribution of wealth and corporatist sense. In the elitist, human rights barristers as the new standard bearers of the political left sense, her dislike of the European Union is certainly not left-wing. That you might call populist.

I became a tad sensitive to this weaponising of labels a while back. I was a guest on an ABC radio show, the other guest being a very well-known opinion piece writer for the Australian. It was right after the Labor-heavy (my new term, we can all play this game) wing of the Liberal party had defenestrated Tony Abbott. I had been attacking this party room coup and the other guest starting throwing around ‘far right’ in connection with the Abbott government. So I stopped and pointed out that the Team Abbott policies could scarcely be classed as ‘far right’, or some even ‘right’. You know, things like an uber-generous paid parental leave scheme, no touching Australia’s bizarre and productivity-killing labour relations laws, raising taxes (only temporarily remember) on the highest earners, giving up on repeal of the s.18C hate speech laws, that sort of thing. Now I much preferred Abbott to Turnbull but facts are facts. So I challenged this writer to name one thing about the Abbott legacy that anyone with a brain could call ‘far right’. As the boats had stopped that was off the agenda.

Well, I got a sort of half apology and we moved on. That may have been my last time on the ABC.

Going back to the problem of the sinking support for established political parties in the West you can see this same trend in Germany. In fact, Angela Merkel is a case study in why there is a huge downside for right-leaning voters to hold their noses and always vote for ‘their party’ even when it continually positions itself a centimetre to the right of the left party. Over the four or five elections Frau Merkel won she did the work of the Left; it was just a tad slower than the actual left-wing party would have accomplished it. And her party is now in disarray.

Of course we are seeing the same massive dissatisfaction with the two main political parties here in Australia as well. Sure, our preferential voting system does more than any other to hide this fact. But be clear. Almost a third of Australians are telling pollsters they will not give their first preferences to either Labor or the Coalition. Were that happening in a first-past-the-post voting system like Britain’s or Canada’s that would translate to huge losses for both of the big parties. Were it also voluntary voting, it could be Armageddon for one of them. But here in Australia, the anger and dissatisfaction are covered over by the need eventually to preference one of the two decrepit big players before the other. They know it. We know it. They know that we know. And most dispiriting of all, we know that they know that we know that they know. And they couldn’t care less.

And yes, in the second round Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency fairly easily, at the time of writing with a seeming 58 per cent of the vote. But also it was the lowest final round voter turnout in half a century. Res ipsa loquitur. (I did a bit of Latin too. Might as well get some use for that aussi.)

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