What is it about left-leaning elites (so the significant preponderance of today’s ‘elite’ class) and France? It’s hard not to conclude that they are francophiles through and through. If you have to suffer through a conversation on wine, good luck avoiding at least one of them displaying his or her (or given the company, possibly some other pronoun) preference for the French sort. Odds are you’ll be subjected to a disquisition on ‘terroir’ and its indispensability to the truly good stuff, or some such oenophiliac ramblings.
What you won’t hear is how the European Union’s Common Agriculture Policy (‘CAP’), driven by and overwhelmingly most beneficial to France, is for the Third World nothing less than a poverty-inducing set of trade-limiting policies that does as much as anything else going to keep the world’s least fortunate continually poor. Given only one wish to make the world’s poor better off and you’d be hard pressed to choose anything better than ‘abolish the EU’s CAP right now’. But as I said, the lefty elites in Australia, Canada, Britain and the UK never mention that. Not ever.
Then there’s their love of French political life. Mon dieu, a 35 hour work week, c’est magnifique! Never mind that some of these lefty francophiles have top bureaucratic and business and legal jobs where they themselves work hours that are orders of magnitude longer than that. No, what they like is the idea (l’idée) of people – other people, not them – working fewer hours. No doubt this is so that the masses can spend their extra time reading French existential philosophers, or pass a few years getting halfway through a novel by Proust.
Many of these lefty francophiles also quite like the way France is so dependent on the public service and big government spending. Most people alive in France today have not experienced even a single year’s budget surplus, and that includes French President Emmanuel Macron. You have to go back to the 1970s to find a year where the government ran a surplus (eat your heart out Wayne Swan). In addition, the ratio of French government spending to GDP is well over 50 per cent, right up there with the highest in the democratic world. You can see why left-wingers love this sort of set-up. Still, it’s hardly a recipe for a dynamic economy. That may explain why, as I write this from London, I’ve noticed in only a week here that there are so many French accents. It’s because jobs are so scarce in France. If you’re young and have initiative in France you leave and move to London.
Now of course the sophisticated francophiles amongst the university crowd in Australia and elsewhere might here point out that French productivity is very high. It’s not at US levels but it sure beats Britain and Australia (and on some measures is 7th best in the world with the UK and Australia down at 14th and 15th). That picture is of course correct. But what it leaves out is that productivity is connected to the unemployment rate. Think of it this way. If only the single most efficient and productive person in your country had a job you’d be living in the country with the world’s highest productivity. It’s just that no one would have a job. Employers overwhelmingly hire the most productive first. Hence the higher your unemployment rate, the more likely it is that those with jobs are the productive ones. There’s a trade-off. And comparatively speaking France has seemingly locked-in high unemployment, especially amongst the young. All else being equal that means higher productivity.
All of this takes me to the quite astounding admiration the left-leaning elites have (and more so had until very recently) for French President Macron. I reckon it even surpasses their love for Canada’s Justin Trudeau because Macron is palpably very smart and Trudeau Jr. self-evidently is not. If there’s one thing lefty intellectuals love it’s another lefty who’s smart, though in my view raw intelligence is a much over-sold and over-valued attribute.
Macron was the boy wonder; the man who loved the European Union (in theory and in practice) and who pledged to revitalise it; the man who could eradicate a few of the inefficiencies in the French governmental model without undermining its essentially anti-Anglosphere (read ‘anti-American’) socialist underpinnings; the man who had sold himself as a ‘centrist’. Of course he was nothing of the kind. Macron had been a minister in the Socialist government of Francois Hollande.
More to the point, if you define ‘populist’ in any way that is not simply a code word for ‘I don’t like the substantive policies that you advocate’, then Macron’s recent triumph in winning the French presidency was through and through a triumph of populism. Here is what is generally meant by populism. It involves a hefty dislike of the main traditional political parties (which would make me a populist in Australia right now). It involves advocacy of a few things the main parties won’t put on the political table (ditto). And it relies to some extent on the charisma or personality of the leader. Macron, therefore, was a populist. It’s just that the EU powers-that-be liked his policies, as do the left-leaning media. So he doesn’t get described as such – because really these days ‘populist’ is just a term of abuse, thrown around with gay abandon to try to delegitimise those whose views you find confronting and hard to counter (a regular tactic of the Liberal party’s Black Hand brigade and of all ABC commentators).
Now don’t get me wrong about France. There are some very admirable things about French political life. Unlike elites in the Anglo world, the French emphasise fraternité as well as égalité (witness their far more robust attitude to banning the burqa); the French are prepared to take direct action when their political class sells them out (anyone for donning a high-vis jacket and taking to the streets?); and the French have a wonderful attitude to their unelected judges – they do not tolerate activist judges in the way you see everywhere in the common law world, even in Australia where our judges (less bad than Canada’s, the UK’s and the US’s true) just make things up about our written constitution to give themselves last word decision-making power.
So in a few ways I’m a Francophile too. It’s just not in the same ways the lefty elites are.