There’s a Zen kids’ book I remember reading to my son, that recounts the tale of an older man assessing his fortunes through a series of events. When he has apparently good fortune, his neighbors congratulate him — but he cautions them to wait and see. When he has apparently bad fortune, his neighbors commiserate with him — but he again tells them to wait and see.
For example, when he fortuitously acquires a horse, his neighbors cheer — until the horse throws his son, breaking the young man’s arm. Then the neighbors sigh — until an officer comes through mustering men for the army, and skips over the young man because of his broken arm. The older man understood not only that the wheel of fortune is always turning, but that sometimes apparently good turns lead to bad ones, and vice versa.
That is the spirit in which I suggest reading the results of the first round of the French election.
Those who favor a more nationalist direction for France — an end to the EU as we know it and an end to multiculturalism and mass-immigration — should surely turn out for Le Pen, while those who would march towards the same future France has pursued for the past quarter century should surely turn out for Macron. But with neither candidate earning even a quarter of the national vote in the first round, it is very hard to believe that either perspective commands anything close to a majority. More than half the nation, faced with this stark contrast of visions, concluded: this is not the right contrast to draw. Whoever wins the next round will merely have convinced the nation that the other candidate is more wrong, not that he or she is right.
The fundamental problems that are driving populist revolt may be ameliorated or exacerbated by particular institutional arrangements, like the EU, but they are not caused by them, as evidenced by the fact that populism and nationalism are on the march across the globe and not just in Europe. India does not have a supra-national entity suppressing the will of the people, nor does Israel; the United States is the dominant global hegemon while Russia is recovering from a massive collapse in power and prestige — but all are governed by at least nominally populist-nationalist coalitions. The tide is broader and deeper than any one electoral contest.
I have serious doubts that the populist-nationalist parties actually have useful solutions to the underlying economic and social problems that have powered their rise. I have even more serious doubts that the centrist managerial liberals have any solutions at all. If I’m right on both counts, then Ross Douthat probably has the right perspective on what the election means for France:
Macron just has the air of a man fated to preside over a debacle.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) April 21, 2017
Mais après lui . . . ?