Reflections on the Revolution in France

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The first act of the French presidential race has come to a close, and the results are seismic. Center-left candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen will advance to a runoff election, leaving in the dust the candidates of the two traditional parties of right and left that had governed France since the return of democracy after the Second World War. Whoever ultimately wins the presidency, the old guard of French politics has lost.

Widespread disaffection with the center-right Republican-Gaullist and the Socialist wings of French politics has finally caused a crack-up of the political landscape. Now French voters face a very real choice. They can either choose the liberally-minded, pro-trade, pro-Europe Macron, or they can choose the arch-conservative, protectionist, Eurosceptic Le Pen. Few elections in any country in recent memory have presented so stark a choice. The vote will be a turning point for France, for Europe, and for the world.

Macron: The Better Choice

If Macron wins, we should expect a movement toward greater liberalization of the labor market, pushes to reduce trade barriers, and a more energetic France in the councils of Europe and global affairs. With Le Pen we can expect increases in economically devastating protectionism, a rollback of what few labor market reforms have been managed in recent years, and a France that threatens the survival of the European project.

The choice of Macron should be obvious to libertarians. That is because, for all her anti-establishment bona fides, Le Pen represents an illiberalism that should make anyone who genuinely believes in individualism and individual rights blanch. Her policies include favoring French industry, shortening the working week even further, foreclosing trade, and halting immigration. Even free marketers who dislike the European Union should see that a more independent France bought at the expense of individuals’ liberty is not worth the price.

Macron is far from a perfect candidate. He served as economy minister in the Socialist government of current president Francois Hollande. He is in favor of an interventionist state and many of the hallmarks of an economic progressive. Yet in the miasma of French politics, his promotion of competition, markets, and labor reforms should be seen as a welcome change from the current feckless administration, and by far the better of the two choices that will face voters in the second round. Opinion polls so far acknowledge this, with it looking like Macron should walk to victory in the runoff. But voters should not let polls fool them, and should get out cast their ballots.

The New Politics

As a whole, the election is exposing the new fault lines in politics today. The traditional party-driven left vs. right binary is breaking down in favor of a personality-driven open vs. closed binary. Some libertarians fetishize national borders and seem to believe that the closing of borders and the breakdown of supranational organizations and institutions like the EU will advance the cause of liberty. Yet that is simply false. Free trade and individual liberty are predicated on the notion that people should be able to make choices for themselves and have control of their own destinies. A reversion to a closed-off, more nativist world of nationalistic tribes is not libertarian and it is not good for human freedom or dignity.

The political elite in France is not the only one facing collapse. The rise of Donald Trump shows the power of the personality-driven political operation and of the resonance of anti-globalist, nativist rhetoric. Le Pen is much like Trump, but with even worse economic instincts and a social attitude bordering on fascistic. If libertarians choose to attach themselves to these sorts of navel-gazing leaders, they will only entrench forces that are antithetical to liberty.

As the political landscape shifts to the open vs. closed dichotomy, libertarians can seize upon that change. We can be the voice for openness, tolerance, and freedom. If we don’t seize that opportunity, we will continue to wallow in irrelevance.

But for now, in France, Macron is the man of the hour.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.

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