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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT