sexta-feira, 3 de março de 2017
The vote that could wreck the European Union / French farmers flock to Le Pen — and hope for the best
France’s next revolution
The vote that could wreck the European Union
Why the French presidential election will have consequences far beyond its borders
Mar 4th 2017
IT HAS been many years since France last had a revolution, or even a serious attempt at reform. Stagnation, both political and economic, has been the hallmark of a country where little has changed for decades, even as power has rotated between the established parties of left and right.
Until now. This year’s presidential election, the most exciting in living memory, promises an upheaval. The Socialist and Republican parties, which have held power since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, could be eliminated in the first round of a presidential ballot on April 23rd. French voters may face a choice between two insurgent candidates: Marine Le Pen, the charismatic leader of the National Front, and Emmanuel Macron, the upstart leader of a liberal movement, En Marche! (On the Move!), which he founded only last year.
The implications of these insurgencies are hard to exaggerate. They are the clearest example yet of a global trend: that the old divide between left and right is growing less important than a new one between open and closed. The resulting realignment will have reverberations far beyond France’s borders. It could revitalise the European Union, or wreck it.
The revolution’s proximate cause is voters’ fury at the uselessness and self-dealing of their ruling class. The Socialist president, François Hollande, is so unpopular that he is not running for re-election. The established opposition, the centre-right Republican party, saw its chances sink on March 1st when its standard-bearer, François Fillon, revealed that he was being formally investigated for paying his wife and children nearly €1m ($1.05m) of public money for allegedly fake jobs. Mr Fillon did not withdraw from the race, despite having promised to do so. But his chances of winning are dramatically weakened.
Further fuelling voters’ anger is their anguish at the state of France (see article). One poll last year found that French people are the most pessimistic on Earth, with 81% grumbling that the world is getting worse and only 3% saying that it is getting better. Much of that gloom is economic. France’s economy has long been sluggish; its vast state, which absorbs 57% of GDP, has sapped the country’s vitality. A quarter of French youths are unemployed. Of those who have jobs, few can find permanent ones of the sort their parents enjoyed. In the face of high taxes and heavy regulation those with entrepreneurial vim have long headed abroad, often to London. But the malaise goes well beyond stagnant living standards. Repeated terrorist attacks have jangled nerves, forced citizens to live under a state of emergency and exposed deep cultural rifts in the country with Europe’s largest Muslim community.
Many of these problems have built up over decades, but neither the left nor the right has been able to get to grips with them. France’s last serious attempt at ambitious economic reform, an overhaul of pensions and social security, was in the mid-1990s under President Jacques Chirac. It collapsed in the face of massive strikes. Since then, few have even tried. Nicolas Sarkozy talked a big game, but his reform agenda was felled by the financial crisis of 2007-08. Mr Hollande had a disastrous start, introducing a 75% top tax rate. He was then too unpopular to get much done. After decades of stasis, it is hardly surprising that French voters want to throw the bums out.
Both Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen tap into that frustration. But they offer radically different diagnoses of what ails France and radically different remedies. Ms Le Pen blames outside forces and promises to protect voters with a combination of more barriers and greater social welfare. She has effectively distanced herself from her party’s anti-Semitic past (even evicting her father from the party he founded), but she appeals to those who want to shut out the rest of the world. She decries globalisation as a threat to French jobs and Islamists as fomenters of terror who make it perilous to wear a short skirt in public. The EU is “an anti-democratic monster”. She vows to close radical mosques, stanch the flow of immigrants to a trickle, obstruct foreign trade, swap the euro for a resurrected French franc and call a referendum on leaving the EU.
Mr Macron’s instincts are the opposite. He thinks that more openness would make France stronger. He is staunchly pro-trade, pro-competition, pro-immigration and pro-EU. He embraces cultural change and technological disruption. He thinks the way to get more French people working is to reduce cumbersome labour protections, not add to them. Though he has long been short on precise policies (he was due to publish a manifesto as The Economist went to press), Mr Macron is pitching himself as the pro-globalisation revolutionary.
Look carefully, and neither insurgent is a convincing outsider. Ms Le Pen has spent her life in politics; her success has been to make a hitherto extremist party socially acceptable. Mr Macron was Mr Hollande’s economy minister. His liberalising programme will probably be less bold than that of the beleaguered Mr Fillon, who has promised to trim the state payroll by 500,000 workers and slash the labour code. Both revolutionaries would have difficulty enacting their agendas. Even if she were to prevail, Ms Le Pen’s party would not win a majority in the national assembly. Mr Macron barely has a party.
La France ouverte ou la France forteresse?
Nonetheless, they represent a repudiation of the status quo. A victory for Mr Macron would be evidence that liberalism still appeals to Europeans. A victory for Ms Le Pen would make France poorer, more insular and nastier. If she pulls France out of the euro, it would trigger a financial crisis and doom a union that, for all its flaws, has promoted peace and prosperity in Europe for six decades. Vladimir Putin would love that. It is perhaps no coincidence that Ms Le Pen’s party has received a hefty loan from a Russian bank and Mr Macron’s organisation has suffered more than 4,000 hacking attacks.
With just over two months to go, it seems Ms Le Pen is unlikely to clinch the presidency. Polls show her winning the first round but losing the run-off. But in this extraordinary election, anything could happen. France has shaken the world before. It could do so again.
French farmers flock to Le Pen — and hope for the best
In the vineyards of Chablis, Daniel Seguinot is choosing patriotism over economic self interest.
By NICHOLAS VINOCUR 3/1/17, 8:04 PM CET Updated 3/3/17, 4:08 AM CET
MALIGNY, France — If the European Union had to choose a poster child for its agricultural policy in France, vintner Daniel Seguinot would make a solid candidate.
For the last 30 years, the producer of premium wine from the northeastern Chablis region has grown his operation in lockstep with the deepening integration and expansion of the EU. Seguinot acknowledges that the introduction of the euro helped him to boost exports, which now account for nearly two-thirds of his wine sales. EU subsidies also support his non-grape crops, which make up a third of his revenue.
You wouldn’t suspect that Seguinot, 69, would be preparing to vote for Marine Le Pen: the far-right presidential candidate who wants to destroy the European Union.
The central plank of Le Pen’s presidential platform is leaving the EU, which means quitting Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy. And yet she remains, to Seguinot’s eyes, a better alternative than former Prime Minister François Fillon, under investigation on suspicion of using public funds to pay his wife for a fake job, and former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, a former banker and remote member of the elite who said he was likely to support free trade accords.
“I think our political class is making a mockery of us,” said Seguinot from his farmhouse overlooking hills of vines planted in orderly rows of light and dark green. “They say one thing in public and then turn around and do exactly the opposite. It’s time to change the guard.”
Greeted as a star
According to a poll by Cevipof for Le Monde, Le Pen has the support of 35 percent of agricultural workers, compared to 20 percent each for Fillon and Macron. By comparison, some 27 percent of the French public supports Le Pen.
That farmers like Seguinot are flocking to Le Pen is one of the most paradoxical aspects of France’s presidential campaign. The country has always been, after all, one of the biggest beneficiaries of Brussels largesse — and most of that has flowed toward the farming sector.
Farmers continue to occupy an outsize role in France’s self-image as a nation of food and wine.
France lobbied hard for the establishment of the Common Agricultural Policy in the early 1960s, and it was the country’s farmers who dragged then President Charles de Gaulle back to the European table during the “empty chair crisis” later that decade. Massive financial support from Brussels helped save the wine industry in the southwestern Languedoc-Roussillon region, which otherwise was headed for collapse after a series of crises starting in the 1970s.
To be sure, farmers make up less than 4 percent of all professionals, and their numbers are dwindling each year as their sector shrinks. But politically, their support carries weight. Farmers continue to occupy an outsize role in France’s self-image as a nation of food and wine. Each year, presidential candidates flock to the Paris farm show, where Le Pen was greeted as a star Tuesday.
National Front officials explain their rural popularity with one word: Europe. They argue that farmers are furious with the EU for having exposed them to unfair competition from rivals in Eastern Europe, and for burdening them with excessive regulations.
Farmers interviewed by POLITICO echoed some of the Front’s critiques of the EU. But they placed more emphasis on disappointment with French leaders, whom they accused of betrayal.
“If farmers are turning first to the National Front, it’s because Marine Le Pen has set herself up as a spokeswoman for people in crisis, and the farming world is in permanent crisis,” said Martial Foucault, head of the Cevipof political research institute. “This is despite the fact that her statist, protectionist program is totally opposed to their vision of the economy, and that her plan for Europe threatens subsidies that are crucial for many of them.”
“In Le Pen, they see someone who can manage their crisis day to day,” he added.
‘A tingle down my spine’
For most of his adult life, Daniel Seguinot voted for mainstream conservative candidates. His family, which has occupied a plot of land in the village of Maligny since the French Revolution, consistently backed Gaullist candidates who “defended French independence” and “let farmers work without too much interference, for good or for bad,” he said.
The Chablis region’s ideal wine-growing conditions and top-notch reputation served Seguinot well. After taking over a small plot from his father, he quickly snapped up neighboring fields and expanded his operation more than tenfold. Today his two daughters run the farm’s day-to-day operations and preside over the production process in giant stainless steel maturation tanks on site.
But Seguinot, who greeted a visiting reporter in a checkered sweater and military-style pants, started to lose confidence in his country’s political class in the 1980s, he said. He never voted for then National Front President Jean-Marie Le Pen, but he grew increasingly frustrated by scandals that afflicted both the left and right, including a fake-jobs case that resulted in the conviction of former Prime Minister Alain Juppé.
When socialist President François Hollande took power in 2012, Seguinot’s frustration grew. Already angry over tax hikes he found unfair, he was more outraged when he learned that Hollande’s own budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, had evaded taxes by stashing money in Swiss bank accounts.
Seguinot yearned for a politician who would speak for France “without shame.”
He found one in Gilbert Collard, a former celebrity lawyer and current National Front MP who came to town in 2014.
“I felt a real tingle down the length of my spine listening to him,” Seguinot said, after offering a visitor a glass of his Chablis. “It was the first speech I had heard in a long time that was truly patriotic. He was telling us that it was acceptable to love your country, to love the flag, to be proud of its history.”
The strains of patriotism touched a chord with Seguinot, who sports a crew cut after a lifetime in the military reserve, and whose family fought in both world wars.
Shortly after the rally, Seguinot signed up as a member of the National Front. The move, he said, had more to do with his feelings about the French establishment than with the EU, although he did criticize “idiotic” international trade agreements.
But in other respects, Seguinot was ambivalent about the EU’s merits and failings. The euro had made it easier to sell his wines in other EU countries; 50,000 of the 80,000 bottles he produced annually are sold abroad, most in neighboring EU states, he said.
Seguinot criticized the free circulation of goods — but only because it was insufficiently implemented; he could not simply drive to Belgium and start to sell his wine to resellers across the border.
National Front officials acknowledge that their program contains unknowns. Gilles Ardinat, a National Front official in the Languedoc-Roussillon region where vintners are heavily subsidized, acknowledged that there was “apprehension” about plans to withdraw from the European Union.
“There is a big part of public opinion in France that is worried,” he said. “But the fear is not about [Le Pen’s] project itself. It has to do with the fact that the whole media is playing on their fears.”
At the Paris farm fair Tuesday, Le Pen told farmers that she would “Frenchify” agricultural subsidies, replacing European grants with payouts from the agriculture ministry. Some farmers who posed for photographs with the party leader echoed her talking points, arguing that the EU had burdened small operations with prohibitive amounts of regulation.
For Seguinot, the prospect of losing the subsides was worrying — but not enough to diminish his support.
But others expressed doubts about the prospect of ending Europe’s subsidies.
“Why not [replace the European subsidies with French ones]? But what do we do in the meantime while all of this is put into place?” said a cattle breeder from the central Limousin region who asked to be identified as Gilles. “It’s not totally clear … The problem is that for us, even one month without the aid can be fatal.”
For Seguinot, the prospect of losing the subsides was worrying — but not enough to diminish his support. Profitable vineyards do not receive EU payouts, but Seguinot does receive them for other crops. If EU payouts dried up, he was unclear about what might replace them.
“The government will have to put its hand in its pocket,” said Seguinot. “With all the trouble we will have because of [leaving] the euro, I’m not sure how they will manage, but we need to have confidence.”