What happened to the Macron revolution? The so-called gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) began as a protest movement against a new eco-friendly diesel tax, but have morphed into an anti-austerity, anti-globalisation, anti-Macron street movement demanding the French President’s resignation. Weeks of angry (and sometimes violent) protests have sent shockwaves through French politics, and Macron has been forced to offer concessions, whilst warning a minority of protesters that rioting and looting will not be tolerated. How did it come to this?
For many French voters, Macron’s new way of doing politics looks very similar to the old ways. The promise of the En Marche! movement was an end to the stale old “left-vs-right” politics, and the beginning of a new, dynamic, people-led movement that brought in ideas from across the political spectrum. However, after winning an impressive majority in the National Assembly, Macron has been accused of arrogance and elitism, and of failing to listen to people with different views. Given that Macron’s rise was built on the collapse of the centre-right and centre-left vote, where does that leave French politics?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Baudouin, arguing that voters today are enthused by politicians such as Macron (he sent us this comment before the protests by the gilets jaunes) because they reject the old “left-right” political spectrum. Baudouin argues that the public want ideas that build bridges between right-wing and left-wing politics, which sound a lot like the “third way” championed by Tony Blair in the 1990s.
To get a response, we put Baudouin’s comment to Alexander Stubb, the former Prime Minister of Finland, when we spoke to him at the State of Europe roundtable in Brussels (organised by the think tank Friends of Europe). What would he say?
For another perspective, we also put Baudouin’s comment to Jonathan Wheatley, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Oxford Brookes University and Co-Founder of the Preference Matcher consortium, an academic consortium developing e-literacy tools to enhance voter education. How would he respond?
The old left-right dichotomy, the way I can see it, is still relevant, but it’s not the only dimension in the political composition. Economic issues are at the forefront of many policies: the debate is between the economic left and the economic right: the idea of redistribution of wealth and more state involvement in regulating entrepreneurial activity against the idea of the unfettered free market. That is still relevant, especially after the period of austerity.
However, the evidence that I see is that, as well as this economic left-right dimension, a cultural dimension seems to be more and more relevant. The cultural dimension is sometimes referred to as the dimension between “open” and “closed”, and is about how you see the outside world. It is about whether you think government should look after ‘people like me,’ whether it’s your national community or straight white men or whatever, or whether you think, on the other hand, that you’re a ‘citizen of the world’ and the outside world, in all its diversity, is something good and UK membership of the EU is something good.
I think this divide across Europe, especially across northern Europe, seems to be not replacing, but co-existing with the existing left-right dimension. Perhaps over the last generation there has been a widening of the divide between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of globalisation. This was the proposal of Hanspeter Kriesi et al. For some reason the losers of globalisation, if you like, feel that things are moving too fast and they want to stop the clock and go back to 1950s. They congregate near the ‘closed’ pole of this dimension, and this may explain the rise of the populist right, which is not economically right, it is ‘culturally right’ if you like.
In southern Europe you may get somewhat different dynamics. In Spain, against the backdrop of austerity, among those that have ‘lost’ have been young people, who are not so much into culturally exclusive politics and reject neoliberalism – the sort of notion that the free market is the only way to run economies. Instead of getting a rise in the populist right, you’ve got a left movement in Podemos. In northern Europe, on the other hand, it seems that ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ seems to be as relevant as left-right in the old-fashioned economic sense.
We also had a comment from Tudor, who argues what we’re actually seeing is the centre collapsing in European politics. Is he right? Is politics moving to the extremes, while the centre-ground is left abandoned?
I think, to a certain extent, this is the case. You are getting increasing polarisation. In part it’s about the population but it’s more about political elites. Compare the data on both the population and elites from the 2015 and the 2017 UK elections – only two years, but there was the Brexit referendum in between which you would think would cause great polarisation. Actually, I found that on the cultural ‘open-closed’ axis, amongst the population as a whole, there was very slight polarisation between those two dates, but it’s very, very minor.
What actually seems to have happened is that the political elites are drawing much more from the two extremes on the spectrum in those two years. Now, that’s not to say that there hasn’t been a gradual polarisation along this ‘open-closed’ dimension over, perhaps, the last generation due to the divide between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of globalisation. There is an element of instrumentalisation by political elites as they see there is a market for certain positions. Therefore, it is used for their own electoral gains.
So perhaps, although the tectonic plates have been gradually shifting over a generation, it’s only now that we seem to be seeing big changes not on the supply side (in other words voters), but on the demand side (political parties). They seem to be shifting around quite significantly.
But another thing that is worthy of note is that in most European societies, people’s positions along the ‘open-closed’ dimension may paradoxically have shifted towards “open”. Typically this dimension is associated with other identity issues like gay rights and other things like that, and was referred to as the ‘GAL-TAN’ dimension (‘green, alternative, libertarian’ against ‘traditional, authoritarian, nationalist’) by Hooghe and Marks back in 2002. I think ‘open-closed’ may be more relevant, but there are certainly these other cultural attributes that go with it. Actually, if you look at the population as a whole, right through Europe, people have become more tolerant gradually, over time, on many of these issues. Yet, we see the rise of the populist right. Why is this when the average person is a little bit less in that direction?
Now go back 50 years and the people were often very deeply socially conservative, but their elites were actually pursuing policies that were considered socially progressive. It wasn’t a big issue because that dimension wasn’t salient politically. Suddenly this dimension has become salient politically and elites are using this.
Is left-right politics over? Or are the left and right growing more extreme and polarised, as the centre ground collapses? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!