Contradicting expectations and her own explicit promises, British Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap election. May is committed to the most misguided policy of any British government in memory — the foolish experiment in deglobalization known as Brexit. Yet such is the splintering of British politics, and the implosion of the opposition Labour Party under the non-leadership of a far-left nonentity, that May will probably win in a landslide. For Britain’s immediate prospects, this may be a good thing: If the country is going to leave the European Union, it might as well have a prime minister who can negotiate from strength. But as a barometer of politics in Europe, the triumph of a deglobalizer is depressing. Meanwhile, across a narrow sea channel, another political drama makes the British one seem tame.
That other drama is in France. In the first round of its presidential election, to be held on Sunday, some three-quarters of the French electorate are expected to back candidates who stand variously for corruption, a 100 percent top tax rate, Islamophobia, Russophilia, Holocaust denial, the undermining of NATO and the traumatic breakup of Europe’s political and monetary union. France was once the cradle of the Western Enlightenment. Now it threatens to become a spectacle of decadent collapse.
Fortunately, France chooses its presidents in stages, so all is not quite lost. Emmanuel Macron, a fresh and vaguely pro-market ex-investment banker, will probably win about a quarter of the votes Sunday, perhaps placing him among the two candidates who make it to the runoff on May 7. If that happens, French voters may prefer him to whichever version of crazy he is up against. But there are no guarantees here. And the crazies are truly bad.
Start with the strongest of them, the far-right immigration-hater, Marine Le Pen. It was she who recently denied any French responsibility for the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz, a claim as shameful and post-truthy as any populist fable. Le Pen has endorsed Russia’s swallowing of Crimea. Her party has accepted a large loan from a Kremlin-linked bank. And she wants to pull France out of NATO’s military command and out of the European Union and the bloc’s common currency. “The European Union will die!” she says, to rapturous screams from her supporters.
Next comes Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Communist-allied candidate who styles himself after Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and promises a “citizens’ revolution.” No prizes for guessing that he’s the one who proposes a 100 percent top tax rate, erasing all danger of hyperbole in the phrase “confiscatory tax.” Like Le Pen, Mélenchon is hostile to NATO and the European Union. He also appears to see no evil in Vladimir Putin. Oblivious to the fact that France has taxed and regulated its way to a 25 percent youth unemployment rate and a government-debt trajectory that threatens Armageddon, he wants further cuts to the French workweek, an additional 10,000 civil servants and a shift in the retirement age from 62 to 60.
The last and weakest of the significant candidates is a conventional conservative, François Fillon. Conventional except for his strange attitude to Russia: Fillon, too, refuses to condemn the invasion of Crimea, which he has compared to the West’s support for the secession of Kosovo from Serbia. And conventional except for the fact that he stands accused of funneling almost $1 million of government money to his wife and two of his children for work they did not do. “France,” he has declared brazenly, “is greater than my errors.”
British and French decadence are not quite the same. Britain — hitherto an open, dynamic and broadly successful melting pot — has experienced a backlash from older voters who feel disoriented by immigration and technological change. France — culturally proud, economically sluggish, at times bizarrely insistent that Muslim women on beaches dress less modestly — has experienced a backlash from younger voters who can’t get jobs. But in a larger sense, both countries point toward the fragile state of European politics. Elites are out of favor. Meager growth has not been shared equitably. Foreign voices are resented. Terrorist attacks add poison to the well.
Perhaps Britain’s government, fortified by a fresh electoral mandate, can negotiate a divorce from Europe that limits the damage. Perhaps the French will rally behind Macron, who, though young and prone to platitudes, does not want to dismantle the European Union or NATO. But Europe is walking a long tightrope. It may escape the abyss one time, two times. But after France there will be Italy, another large economy that is central to Europe’s cohesion and that features a similar brew of government debt, youth unemployment, discredited elites and scary demagogues. How long can the center hold?