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Europe is a continent in crisis – where lo-vis people now wear high-vis jackets

Outside their prosperous cities, the hinterlands of France, Germany, Italy and beyond are hitting back

5 January 2019

9:00 AM

5 January 2019

9:00 AM

The ‘yellow vest’ protests against President Emmanuel Macron that swept through Paris and other French cities last month have evoked overwhelming sympathy: 77 per cent considered them justified, according to a poll for Le Figaro.

Even after Macron offered a budget-busting package of concessions to appease his critics, it was hard to silence the lacerating self-examination one undergoes after a soured romance: God, what was I thinking? Today, France’s café-goers wonder aloud how they could have voted so overwhelmingly two years ago for a president whom they disliked and disagreed with even at the time.

The simple answer is that Macron was running against Marine Le Pen, whose party, now called the National Rally, is a haven for the global economy’s déclassés. The more complicated answer is ‘Condorcet’s paradox’, named after the 18th-century marquis, philosopher, legislator, abolitionist and theorist of probability. Condorcet demonstrated that in any election that involves at least three people, as French multi-round contests do, the public’s real preference can be impossible to determine. People might like Mr Smith better than Mr Jones, Mr Jones better than Mr Brown, and Mr Brown better than Mr Smith — leaving the majority feeling cheated.

This May’s European elections, set to pit Macron’s Brussels-defending ‘establishment’ against the ‘ferment’ of Le Pen and various men-on-the-street, are a good bet to be the kind of election Condorcet would recognise. A recent poll found 30 per cent of the public think well of Le Pen and 69 per cent think ill of her. You might consider such numbers unimpressive. But in the present climate they make Le Pen the most popular major politician in the country, with twice the support Macron has.

Le Pen is sceptical of immigration, and European politics is still mostly about immigration. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and the most successful politician in Europe right now, is successful because he stopped the trafficking of African migrants in their hundreds of thousands from the Maghreb to the shores of Sicily. The traffickers have since moved their operations west, egged on by the grandstanding mayors of Spain’s coastal cities. Thus was the Spanish socialist party (PSOE) ousted from its impregnable-looking stronghold in Andalusia a few weeks ago. A new anti-immigration party, Vox, took 11 per cent of the vote.


Anti-immigration and populist politicians are like other politicians. They succeed not because voters are distracted but because they are attentive. This is even true of Donald Trump, who on the surface appears to have done little (and in terms of legislation has done literally nothing) for the people who elected him. And yet he can be credited with a lot of things that didn’t happen. In December, Trump didn’t sign the UN refugee pact greeted with such fanfare by Macron and others. Described as a mere ‘cooperative framework’ to lay down certain non-political principles, it is — as the activists who worked so doggedly to pass it well understood — an invitation to activist judges in the richer countries to order more liberal immigration policies. On reflection, the populist leaders not just of Italy but also of Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland and Slovakia decided they felt the same way as Trump.

If you live in a cosmopolitan city, you will wonder why such politicians aren’t immediately voted from office, or outright removed for malpractice — because you are unlikely to know a single person who thinks this way. The yellow vest protesters do think this way. They may even be a majority. They have to wear hi-vis vests because they are lo-vis people.

What is going on now is rather like the reverse of what happened in 1968 when Charles de Gaulle summoned la France profonde to resist a revolution that began in Paris. But the yellow-vest movement is one of class, not geography. It is run by people remote from the global economy’s supply chains and the places those who control them congregate. Chic Montpellier and high-tech Toulouse are not, in this sense, remote, any more than Oxford and Cambridge are. A reliable journalist’s rule for finding populists is that any place you’d go for a holiday or a meal is probably not the place to look.

A Parisian friend describes her parents’ centuries-old village, charming and cosy 25 years ago, today stripped of its post office and all its shops except one crummy boulangerie, and abandoned by all but a handful of geriatrics. The major recreation for these old people is to drive 10km to the nearest motorway exit to drink a hot chocolate at a Carrefour.

It was not the yellow-vest marchers who did this to small-town Europe. Nor have they been responsible for most of the mayhem in Paris, despite the assiduous efforts of politicians to link them to it: that has been the work of opportunistic anti-globalist radicals and youth from the suburban housing projects.

So why have almost all of the smaller cities in France, Italy and eastern Germany been emptied of their natives and their businesses? It has been easy to find articles about the failure of populist movements (including Brexit) over the past few months, all of them written from Europe’s prosperous major cities. But those cities’ prosperity has been built on transformation of the hinterland’s economy. A more accurate word would be dismantling: outside the charmed global-economy hubs, Europe is dying. You can see the same thing in Sweden that you will see in Hungary. As the French geographer Christophe Guilluy puts it, ‘There is not a single model that works.’

New Year’s Day marked the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the euro (the listed currency, not the coins) on 1 January 1999. Did you notice how joyously people celebrated it? You didn’t? Twenty years: that’s exactly how long it has been since Italy has had any significant growth. What a coincidence. What do you think happened in 1999 that did Italy such harm? The release of Ricky Martin’s ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’?

This year’s European elections threaten to be a Condorcet paradox, a source of ambiguity and dissatisfaction. Come May, we might well discover that people prefer the globalised society to the old days, the old days to the populists’ vision, and the populists’ vision to the globalised society.


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