Skip to main content

Euro crisis invites political extremism in French vote

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Mon April 16, 2012
Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front gestures before a campaign stop in Pau, France, on Sunday.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front gestures before a campaign stop in Pau, France, on Sunday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • France, voting next week in first round for president, sees growth of fringe parties
  • David Frum says the extremists are gaining due to disastrous economic policy
  • He says preserving the Euro is forcing leaders to cut spending in midst of recession
  • In France, National Front and Left Front are gaining, though neither will win, he says

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002 and is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again."

Washington (CNN) -- The French will vote next week to elect a new president.

The April 22 election pits incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy against challenger Francois Hollande. Sarkozy, a conservative, argues that France did well compared with other European countries in the Great Recession. Hollande, on the left, urges a more expansionary program of government spending to create jobs.

Normal politics, in other words.

David Frum
David Frum

But the vote to watch is not Sarkozy v. Hollande. It is Sarkozy plus Hollande.

The French constitution establishes a two-round voting system. The idea is to ensure that the ultimate winner obtains an outright majority of all votes cast. The system's side effect is to invite the French to use their first ballot as a protest vote.

French elections down to the wire

Thus in 2007, the nominees of the two big parties won 57% of the vote between them in Round 1, with the remainder scattered among the hard-right National Front and various categories of radical left-wing parties.

It is that small party vote that is the vote to watch in 2012.

Sarkozy and Hollande disagree on much but not on the euro. Both support the currency, despite the terrible economic toll it has put on the economies of Europe. 

To sustain the euro, the countries of southern Europe are cutting government expenditures and raising taxes in a futile effort to balance their budgets in the throes of a worsening recession. The euro is doing to Europe in the 2010s what the gold standard did to the United States in the 1930s: magnifying an ordinary downturn into a social catastrophe.

Unemployment has risen past 9% in Italy, to 15% in Portugal, 22% in Greece and 23% in Spain. In the past, generous European social networks cushioned unemployed. Those out of work might suffer anxiety and depression, but they need not fear material deprivation. But that's changing as radical budget cuts bite.

Portugal, for example, has slashed government spending by the equivalent of 7.5% of GDP over the past two years. How much is 7.5% of GDP? To achieve a similar cut in the United States, we'd have to abolish Social Security and the defense budget.

So you can see why the euro project might begin to provoke public discontent. European elites have met that discontent by silencing it. When Greece proposed to hold a referendum on budget cuts, the EU authorities forbade it. When Italy needed aid to remain in the eurozone, the EU authorities forced distrusted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to resign and installed in his place an economist prime minister without an intervening election.

Yet discontent will emerge somewhere. Radical parties are now rising across Europe. In France, polls show more than one-third of the public now supports radical alternatives to the two big traditional parties. About 16% support the far-right National Front and about 17% the neo-communist Left Front (Front de Gauche).

The National Front and the neo-communists disagree on issues such as immigration and law enforcement. Yet on economics, the two parties sound increasingly similar. Both want radical change in the European Union. Marine Le Pen, the National Front candidate for president, has voiced sympathy for outright exit from the Euro currency. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Left Front, wants to assert political control over the independent European Central Bank.

As they attack the EU and the euro, the far left and the far right are gaining supporters they never previously could have hoped for. One poll shows 25% of French young people supporting the National Front.

The National Front is also making inroads in the traditional heartland of French social democracy, the industrial northeast. 

As Sarkozy and Hollande campaign from TV studios, the neo-communist Mélenchon is exciting frenzied rallies in France's poorer neighborhoods. When Sarkozy and Hollande belatedly staged public meetings on Sunday, Mélenchon mocked them for imitating his accessible style of campaigning: They "will now also occupy the streets and risk appearing in public squares."

Neither Le Pen nor Mélenchon has any hope of winning the presidency, nor even very much of a hope of making it to the second round. What they are doing, however, is giving expression to public distress that is going unexpressed by the mainline parties. They may not win enough votes. But they are exerting enough political force to reshape French politics and possibly the politics of all Europe.

The euro was a terrible mistake. It is failing now in exactly the way predicted by its critics: a credit boom followed by a depression. The present policy response offers the people of Europe no hope at all, opening a political opportunity for extremists and demagogues. On April 22, the voters of France will tell us just how large that political opportunity has grown.

Join us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Follow us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT