French election speaks to the pointlessness of politics under globalization

Photo: Blandine Le Cain/flickr

My current version of An American in Paris, the MGM musical that won six Oscars in 1951, is Diana Johnstone, a cranky, idiosyncratic expat U.S. journalist who has covered European politics for decades. She makes you rethink.

Sunday's French election, she says, "marks a profound change in European political alignments:" from left versus right, to globalization versus national sovereignty. The old left did have something called internationalism (as in The Internationale) but it was the opposite of current globalization. Now those divisions have grown irrelevant or even reversed.

Here's how rightist Marine Le Pen branded her rival, Emmanuel Macron, who's supposed to be "left" of her, however he styles himself, in Wednesday's TV debate: "the candidate of savage globalization, Uberization, precarity, social cruelty, the war of all against all, economic pillage … the dismemberment of France by great economic interests."

Make a few substitutions and you've also encapsulated Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton.

It's true, globalization and neoliberal economics were constructed by the right in the 1980s. But leftists and liberals, such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, clambered on when they saw it might get them elected. With the crash of 2008, some rightists began disembarking but the left's leaders have largely stayed loyal.

There's a mind-bending example of this switch in the London Review of Books: when Cadbury's chocolate moved its plant from England to Poland for the cheaper wages, Poland's very right-wing government absorbed the jobs but continued to denounce and attack the EU anyway, in fiercely nationalist terms.

The "fatal dilemma" of the left, says Johnstone as a leftist, is that it can't be socialist or even social democratic while maintaining its loyalty to Europe since the euro and EU rules make their social policies unachievable.

Then, at her most unsettling, she asks, "whether any genuine political life is possible" under globalization. Why? Because all major choices are left to the "free market" and its enforcers in places such as Brussels.

Le Pen has a perfect populist phrase for this: "The euro is the currency of the rich. The franc is the currency of the people." I shiver when I recall John Turner making the very same point during Canada's free trade debate in 1988. Give up those "economic levers of power" and national independence means little, he warned.

If political acts, like voting, are meaningless under globalization, that makes some sense of the refusal by normally left voters to turn out for Hillary, leading to Trump's victory. The same lassitude could work on Sunday for Le Pen, though everyone (who matters, in their own opinion) says she won't win.

The pointlessness of politics under globalization also opens the door to active promotion of non-democratic forms of government, where people don't need to waste time on meaningless acts like voting. This is the first moment since the 1930s when such thoughts have seemed worth voicing in the West, though Donald Trump is so far the only leader to open that door and appear tempted to walk through. Toward what -- dictatorship? Tyranny? Monarchy?

The people around Trump seem to have a way to deal with those impulses so far: put him in a playpen and let him belch or tweet at will. Meanwhile, the adults in the room -- Spence, McMaster, Tillerson, Haley -- will carry on with the ordinary business of globalization and distract him with an occasional toy.

That sort of thing wouldn't work on Le Pen, who has a relationship to history and reality that Trump lacks. No Leplaypenization of power for her, if she makes it.

If there's any brightness in this reconfigured tableau, it's that neither side inspires grand passion -- certainly not on the left. To Macron's brainless "ni de droit, ni de gauche" -- neither left nor right; protesters chant back, "Ni Marine, ni Macron, ni patrie, ni patron." i.e., neither Le Pen's nostalgic nationalism nor Macron's submission to corporate globalization. (Though if you Google translate it, you'll get, "Neither the navy, nor Macron," which also seems pertinent.)

It's encouraging, too, that the most popular politician in the U.S. is Bernie Sanders, an unrealigned socialist (meaning, for him, a New Deal Democrat) who opposes corporate globalization without being exclusionary, anti-immigrant or racist.

There's also Jean-Luc Melenchon in France, a former socialist party member, who ran well in the run-up vote, and who replaced the Internationale with the Marseillaise at his rallies. One may hope then, tentatively, for a realigned realignment.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Blandine Le Cain/flickr

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