Our unknowable future

In Copenhagen on Wednesday evening I had dinner with a group of Continental academics. Overhanging the table, like a large cloud, was the fact that — as we ate — the Macron vs Le Pen TV debate was going on in France. The conversation was gloomy: although everyone present was familiar with the electoral arithmetic and the opinion polling that suggested a Macron victory on Sunday, it was clear that they also had what one diner described as “a bad feeling” about the election. In a way, it was like a superstition — so many ‘unthinkable’ things had happened in the last year, that one more shock was now conceivable.

I feel the same. Two reasons for this. The first is an email from a thoughtful and well-informed friend. He’s a political junkie, speaks excellent French, and he had watched the debate in its entirety. Here’s what he wrote:

Last night I watched the 2 hour ‘presidential debate’ on French TV between Macron and Le Pen. A terrible cacophony, nasty, and in fact a disaster for both. It’s yet unclear what its effect will be in the polls and on next Sunday’s election. I’m no longer confident that Macron will win: I think it is possible that the Clinton/Trump disaster will be copied … (e.g because in large numbers people abstain from voting – which be favourable for Le Pen.)

Secondly, there are several well-informed newspaper reports from France (e.g. in today’s Financial Times) about the many voters who despise Le Pen but who are also so hostile to, or unenthusiastic about, Macron that they will not bother to turn out to vote on Sunday. If that happens, then the nightmare might indeed happen.

As to why French voters might react this way, Paul Krugman has written an interesting NYT column which says in part:

There are, no doubt, multiple reasons, especially cultural anxiety over Islamic immigrants. But it seems clear that votes for Le Pen will in part be votes of protest against what are perceived as the highhanded, out-of-touch officials running the European Union. And that perception unfortunately has an element of truth.

Those of us who watched European institutions deal with the debt crisis that began in Greece and spread across much of Europe were shocked at the combination of callousness and arrogance that prevailed throughout.

Even though Brussels and Berlin were wrong again and again about the economics — even though the austerity they imposed was every bit as economically disastrous as critics warned — they continued to act as if they knew all the answers, that any suffering along the way was, in effect, necessary punishment for past sins.

Politically, Eurocrats got away with this behavior because small nations were easy to bully, too terrified of being cut off from euro financing to stand up to unreasonable demands. But Europe’s elite will be making a terrible mistake if it believes it can behave the same way to bigger players.

Finally, there’s the thought that even if Macron wins, could he govern? At the moment, his embryonic, pop-up party (En Marche) hasn’t a single MP. So France could have a president who might be unable to get any significant legislation through parliament. After seven years of this kind of gridlock, Le Pen might be a shoo-in in 2022.