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Will France Sound the Death Knell for Social Democracy?

James Angelos
The defunct paper mill Sailliot worked at is in a small town called Wizernes, a worn-looking cluster of red-roofed homes surrounded by marshy parkland and intersected by the Aa River, which runs through the mill and other factories along its serpentine course to the North Sea. One morning, I found Sailliot and his colleagues sitting inside a prefabricated shed outside the mill, a base of resistance marked by a red C.G.T. flag planted in a rusty barrel. Sailliot and other union members had maintained a round-the-clock vigil since the mill’s closing, to draw national attention to their plight and also, they said, to ensure that the company did not secretly send trucks to disassemble the mill. The idea was to keep it ready for production in the event that another buyer came along. (Sequana, the company that owns the mill, said it would take it apart this year.) A pile of tires lay next to the shed, ready to be ignited if a blockade was deemed necessary. One of the men pointed out the scorched asphalt where he had set tires alight — ostensibly to prevent suspicious trucks from entering, but surely good theater too — and, with a devilish smile, expressed hope that he would soon get a chance to do it again. Inside the shed, posters covered the walls. One, with an image of a worker’s hand holding a hammer, called for a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Another, picturing Hollande, was captioned “the gravedigger of the left.”
I struck up a conversation with Bruno Evrard, a 49-year-old whose father had worked at the mill, as had his grandfather. Evrard worked at the plant for three decades and hoped to spend his working life there. Instead, he was now employed at a nearby cardboard factory on a week-to-week basis. Given the growth in online shopping, Evrard said, cardboard was a relatively good business to be in. Still, he didn’t want to get his hopes up. “They use temporary people like Kleenex,” he said.
Evrard asked me how American workers protected their jobs. “Eat or be eaten,” I said, trying to draw a laugh. But this seemed only to confirm the unionists’ view of America’s grim reality. “Are there a lot of ‘insecure’ jobs?” Evrard asked, meaning jobs with no protections from layoffs. Pretty much all private-sector jobs in America are insecure, I said, explaining that it was common for people to change employers many times over the course of a lifetime.
“That’s what they’re trying to do in France,” Evrard snapped. “The same kind of stupidity.”
“That’s the labor law,” Sailliot chimed in.
“It’s American,” Evrard said in perturbed agreement. “It’s American.”
Evrard told me that his opinion of the French Socialist Party, which brought this American idea to France, was “zero.” I asked him if that meant he would consider voting for the National Front. He came from a staunchly communist family and maintained his allegiance to the left, he told me. But it was an increasingly lonely position. All Evrard ever heard from his new co-workers was how the government took care of foreigners, not French workers. “I’m never on the right side of the conversation,” he said. The National Front has become “too big of a phenomenon.”
A paper mill in Wizernes, France. Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times
Sailliot then gave me a tour of the expansive grounds, walking me past the brick chateau next to an apple orchard that was built, he said, by the wealthy family that once owned the place, and then over to the mill itself, where he pointed out the virtues of the giant machines. Afterward, we walked over to a nearby restaurant for lunch. At our table, not far from a television that blared out the progress of a horse race, we were joined by Jérôme Lecoustre, a reticent man with a bulldog tattoo on his neck. Lecoustre works with Sailliot’s wife at a nearby glass factory that, he said, had shed thousands of employees since he started working there two decades ago. His own wife worked at a school cafeteria, part time and on a short-term contract. They had two children, 11 and 14. I asked him if he was worried about losing his job. Lecoustre hesitated to answer, taking a gulp from a glass of red wine.
“No,” he said finally.
Sailliot shot him a look of disbelief. “Come on, you know you’re afraid of the future.”
Lecoustre paused, then gave his explanation: Workers with more menial jobs were at greater risk of losing them. But he worked on a machine, and this gave him more security.
Sailliot didn’t press the issue. The two men remained friendly, despite glaring political differences. Lecoustre was a supporter of the National Front. I asked him why.
“People are fed up,” he said. “So maybe we can try to change something.”
“Fed up about what?” I asked.
“A bit of everything,” he said.
Lecoustre brought up the thousands of African and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees that had set up a sprawling camp, widely referred to as the Jungle, in Calais, a French port city near the Channel Tunnel. Their attempts to stow away on ferries, trains and trucks bound for Britain had become a nuisance to drivers and travelers. The solution, according to Lecoustre, was to take greater control of the national borders.
The National Front has, in recent years, become more popular in many rural areas and small towns like Wizernes, places that are often relatively homogeneous and have few immigrants. Many people, of course, wish to keep it that way and therefore happily embrace the National Front’s nativist message. Yet immigration is also intertwined with broader anxieties that fuel support for the party — fear of terrorism, fear of economic collapse — and so the issue becomes an easy, tangible target, even if it remains an abstraction.
I asked Lecoustre if immigration had changed his life in any direct way. He thought for a moment. “No,” he said.
Sailliot interjected. This was the absurdity of it all, he said. There were hardly any migrants in the area, and yet somehow, immigration was everybody’s biggest problem. How could that be? Sailliot went on: Politics ought to be about putting all people first, ahead of global markets, ahead of the bottom line, not about getting some people out of the country. Lecoustre listened, but he did not appear convinced.
The suspicion that immigrants are taking something they don’t deserve, the conviction that native citizens are being supplanted by foreigners, the growing sense that mainstream political parties serve the interests of privileged global elites rather than working people — all of this will be perfectly familiar to Americans who just lived through the last election. President Donald J. Trump’s campaign in many ways embodied the nativist, anti-establishment rebellion sweeping much of the West. In doing so, it replicated aspects of an older French model, in which the far right adopted the rhetoric of the far left to surprising success.
In the mid-1990s, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front’s founder, began to push the party’s economic platform away from its original free-market ideology and toward protecting the working class. (Observers coined the term gaucho-lepénisme to describe his growing appeal to traditional leftists.) In 2002, he stunned France by coming in second in the first round of the French presidential election, ahead of the weak Socialist candidate. In France, the winner must obtain an absolute majority of votes, so the top two finishers compete in a second round. In that runoff, Le Pen lost overwhelmingly to the center-right candidate, Jacques Chirac, as many leftists joined center-right voters to form a “republican front,” uniting forces to thwart the National Front.
When Jean-Marie’s youngest daughter, Marine, took over the party in 2011, she redoubled the leftist economic message and shunned her father’s blatantly anti-Semitic statements — a so-called dédiabolisation of the party intended to make it more palatable to the mainstream. Her economic rhetoric is now often indistinguishable from that of far-left European leaders. In 2015, Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany jointly addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Le Pen, a member of that Parliament, stood to make a reproach to Merkel. The terms on which she did so — German economic domination of Europe, the “vassalization” of European nations and the imposition of austerity policies that led to mass unemployment — could just as well have come from Greece’s former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, Le Pen’s ideological opposite in every other way.
Le Pen has adopted an old-left economic message at a time when the center-left has largely abandoned it. Across much of Europe, in fact, far-right parties are increasingly presenting themselves as guardians of workers and of the welfare state for native citizens, promising to preserve it from the threat of foreign newcomers. The consequences are proving particularly drastic for the European Union. Britain’s vote to leave the E.U. was propelled by an unusual alliance of conservatives and working-class voters who have traditionally supported the Labour Party — many of them in England’s industrial north. Le Pen promises that if she wins the presidential election, she, too, will call for a referendum on whether France should remain in the E.U., and she hopes a similar alliance of voters will yield the same result. France is a founding member of the E.U. and is far more economically and politically entwined with the bloc than Britain, which was never a fully committed member. While Brexit was a blow to the E.U., France’s departure could signify its end. An eventual French exit, though unlikely, is not unimaginable. French voters rejected a European Constitution in a 2005 referendum, and French attitudes toward the European Union since then have only grown more skeptical. A pre-Brexit Pew Research Center survey found that 61 percent of the French held an unfavorable view of the E.U.; the same survey found that 48 percent of Britons did.
Presidential-election polls in France, as of this writing, show Le Pen likely to make it to the runoff, to be held in May. The pressing question in France now is: Will the “republican front” once again hold? Given the unpopularity of the Socialists, Le Pen’s chief opponents are now François Fillon — a center-right, market-oriented social conservative who has promised to cut public-sector jobs and was recently depicted on the front page of the left-wing newspaper Libération with a Margaret Thatcher hairdo — and Emmanuel Macron, a young former investment banker who served as the economy minister under Hollande but has now split to form his own neither-of-the-left-nor-of-the-right political movement. This, bewilderingly, makes the far-right Le Pen the only leading candidate with a traditionally leftist economic message, and it leaves many leftists who remain opposed to her hard-pressed to vote for her opponents.
Sailliot told me that he would support the Left Front candidate in the first round, but that if he was forced to choose between Le Pen and one of the other probable candidates in the second round, he would not vote at all. Some of his leftist colleagues, many of whom voted for Chirac in 2002 in order to foil Jean-Marie Le Pen, told me the same thing. Ultimately, Marine Le Pen isn’t expected to win; enough left-leaning voters, it is believed, will join center-right voters to defeat her. But this is an era in which political prediction may seem like a fool’s game. The day after Trump’s election, Le Pen was clearly heartened by his unexpected victory. “What happened last night wasn’t the end of the world,” Le Pen said. “It’s the end of a world.”
One morning, I visited Grégory Glorian, the 41-year-old head of the C.G.T.’s Pas-de-Calais office in the city of Lens, a former coal town in the heart of the region’s mining basin, where coal extraction began in the 18th century. Glorian, a thin, hospitable man, told me that his grandfather had worked in a mine just down the road; he still remembered how his grandfather’s blue eyes peered out at him from a coal-blackened face at the end of a shift. That mine shut down when Glorian was 11; in 1990, the last mine in the area closed. While the government supported programs to place miners in other industries, some of those suffered, too.
The mining life, despite its hardships, had provided security. Miners lived in rowhouses built by the mining company. Their children went to schools built by the company. Coal, electricity and health care were all provided by the company. Now all that remains of the industry in the basin is a collection of mining pits, slag heaps and workers’ estates so archaic that Unesco, in 2012, added the region to its World Heritage List of unique global treasures. The site “illustrates a significant period in the history of industrial Europe,” Unesco noted. “It documents the living conditions of workers and the solidarity to which it gave rise.”
Glorian’s working life is emblematic of the new uncertainty. For a time, he worked at Metaleurop-Nord, a smelter that produced zinc and lead, then at a textile factory that produced carpet thread. Each of those factories closed. The shuttering of the smelter in 2003 was a particularly hard blow to the region, leaving several hundred workers without jobs. The National Front sensed electoral opportunity. Marine Le Pen has run repeatedly for the French Parliament in the area around Lens, narrowly missing a seat in 2012. At the same time, National Front candidates have steadily chipped away at the left’s power, making significant gains in local elections.
Laurent Dassonville Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times
Glorian acknowledged that the National Front was attracting some C.G.T. members in Pas-de-Calais; in one case, he said, a prominent C.G.T. delegate from a nearby tire shop ran for office on a National Front ticket. The delegate, Glorian added, was kicked out of the union. When C.G.T. members openly expressed sympathy for the National Front, Glorian told me, union leaders tried to “educate” them about the errors in their thinking. If that didn’t work, they kicked them out, because the union doesn’t tolerate overt racism and nationalism. Glorian said he was afraid that some of his peers hid their favorable feelings about the National Front from him, knowing they wouldn’t go over well. “The left is to blame,” he told me of the party’s success. “They didn’t do their job.”
The C.G.T. delegate turned National Front politician, I soon found out, was not an isolated case. A number of National Front politicians in the area claim to come from unions and other traditionally leftist organizations. The party, it appears, often seeks out members with such credentials as part of its strategy to supplant the left. In Méricourt, a town a few miles from Lens that is overshadowed by a volcanic-looking slag heap, the Communist mayor is holding together an alliance of leftists who are battling a rising challenge from National Front politicians like these.
On the morning of my visit to Méricourt, an outdoor market was set up on the main street, with stalls selling cheap clothes, cleaning supplies, sandwiches. In a bar, I met a foreman named Laurent Dassonville who described himself as a former Communist. Now he is the president of the town’s chapter of the National Front. Dassonville and I moved toward the pool table, where his 12-year-old son sat next to him, playing Pokémon Go. Dassonville told me that his father had been a Communist, and so had his grandfather. Years ago, he switched allegiance because, he said, the National Front is the only party that still defends workers. Dassonville ran for local office in 2015 on a National Front ticket. He virtually tied his leftist opponents in the first round of voting but came up short in the second round. After his loss, Dassonville published an angry letter in a local magazine, accusing his leftist opponents of siding with “the big bosses” in order to prevail over the National Front. “You followed the instructions of the haves and the powerful,” he wrote. A National Front politician was denouncing the area’s hard leftists as if they were neoliberal capitalists.
Dassonville sipped his coffee and lit a Marlboro. He called over a man he introduced as a National Front activist, a retiree who presented a new party membership slip to Dassonville. New members were signing up all the time, Dassonville told me. “Look, this one’s a truck driver,” he said. “Someone from the working world.”
I couldn’t help wondering if this interaction was being staged for my benefit. “They say we are an extreme-right party,” Dassonville said. “But when you look closely at the words of Marine Le Pen and at the program we are now building, there’s a big part of the left in it. The left forgot its tradition. It’s up to us to appropriate it.”
I asked Dassonville if he would call the National Front an extreme-right party or an extreme-left party. Like many in the National Front, he objected to the designation “extreme.” “It’s a normal political party,” he said. “Why would you say extreme? What does the word ‘extreme’ even mean?”
Dassonville thought the whole left-right spectrum was finished anyway. “For me,” he said, “it has no value.”

Saty13 New York, NY January 24, 2017
As a Democrat, I would like to see Democrats get past their simplistic view of immigration, which (whether intended or not) comes across as "If you don't support unrestricted immigration you are against Mexicans and Muslims. You are racist and an 'Islamaphobe.'"

Can't we acknowledge that we need smarter immigration policies? Can't we acknowledge that when immigration is handled badly it can indeed be linked to negative economic outcomes, not just for the American working class but also the middle class. It can also be linked to bad outcomes for our domestic security.

It's not politically correct to say all this, which is why it's hard for the progressive left to acknowledge. Unfortunately, It's much easier to shout "racist!" at the right wing and draw the battle lines.

bronx refugee austin tx January 24, 2017
Let me translate European "right wing populism" for you: A person who wants a job that can support a family; A person who feels like their national culture and identity are disappearing, sacrificed to the Gods of liberal globalism; A person who does not necessarily want "refugees" whose culture has wrecked their own countries so badly, that they are now have to sleep in their neighbor's bedrooms: A person who if they are just a hair right of failed socialism, they are labeled as some kind of extremist - in other words, not right wing at all, but mostly just regular folks. Trump supporters can instantly recognize these citizens.

Niall Firinne London January 24, 2017
The problem is that the elites in government, media, entertainment and academia don't get it. LIfe for them is good, very good and don't realiseor accept that the policies they have pushed for and put in place are anything but good.Those policies are certainly good for and to them. However is the left wing/ liberal / social democracy policies cost working class industrial workers jobs, healthcare, housing and education. Be in Jonestown Pennsylvania, Sunderland or Lyon people are saying enough already of Washington's, London's and Paris' social experiments, they are killing them. Also the hypocrisy of the elite left is incredible and shocking. The "celebs" sit in there mansions, jet setting to their villas in an endless life of luxury and have the nerve to lecture middle class and working class people on morality and politics. Perhaps Madonna or DiCaprio or Cumberbatch should be taxed out of jobs. When you look closely at them and many celebs they make Trump, Farage and LePen look like paradigms of virtue.

d. lawton Florida January 24, 2017
LePen is NOT a "right wing" party if compared to US political parties. NYT, Huffington Post, Washington Post use that pejorative term in order to further a globalist agenda. French people LIKE their social and economic benefits, and do not want them eliminated. They also are proud of their own society and culture, which they see threatened by open borders and globalism. At this point in history, sovereign nations still exist and there is still such a thing as national citizenship. It seems NYT wants to do away with that.

Lee Atlanta January 24, 2017
The French love their social benefits (rightly) - they know that on the current trajectory these benefits are unsustainable.

The EU globalists put Europe in this predicament by implementing immigration policies that are frankly extreme. Imagine accepting 1M immigrants in a country of 80M in roughly a year like Germany did. Is everyone who feels uncomfortable about that really a bigot? There needs to be political space for people who to express these opinions without being labeled as bigots. It doesn't exist and so Le Pen is the natural consequence.

Brian PA January 24, 2017
When I read comments that referred to the "postindustrial world ", I wonder here the commentors think all that stuff comes from . I'm referring to the cars, the toaster ovens , the televisions, and all the rest of the material goods we use every day. These are made in factories. The factories are staffed by workers. Why do many people seem to believe that Americans, and Europeans, R incapable of manufacturing these items? Once again, we need to remember that these jobs no longer exist because they have been outsourced to slave labor an Asian countries with no environmental regulations. Once again, we need to ask why we should continue to accept this.

Frank Boston January 24, 2017
The leadership of both social democrat and center-left parties have more in common culturally with rich fund managers, rich media company managers, economically protected professors and senior bureaucrats, and well-off doctors and lawyers than they do with construction workers, garbage collectors, energy workers, factory workers, small business owners, and nurses.

This new economic / professional / media / government elite in truth forms a New Aristocracy. They have retained old cultural habits, like marriage, and raising children in 2-parent households, while telling the bottom 80% that it is good to engage in self-destructive, anti-family behaviors. They protect each other's jobs, arrange for government subsidies for each other's sectors, network their children into the best schools and their spouses into the few remaining good paying jobs, and wall off their residential areas. They use free trade to ship manufacturing to low-wage countries, regulation that hits small business opportunities and the energy and manufacturing sectors, "public education" campaigns to leave the lower classes stuck in 3rd rate schools in separate ZIP codes, and open borders to encourage low-paid competition for what domestic jobs remain.

The New Aristocracy profits from growth in Emerging Markets while buying off the votes of the bottom 30% with modest transfer payments, and isolating and impoverishing the middle 50%. The New Aristocracy subscribes to the NYT and WaPo and vice versa.

mobocracy minneapolis January 24, 2017
The left everywhere seems to have shifted priorities. Where it once focused on worker economic welfare, it seemed to have deprioritized that in favor of social issues, such as diversity, cultural inclusion and so forth.

I think support for the latter issues was something of an enabler for aligning with globalist economic agendas, along with the fact that any mature political movement would ultimately be somewhat co-opted into the broader economic system. This apparent alignment with globalist economics has significantly damaged the left's credibility.

While I'm sure there were smart political and moral reasons for the left to prioritize social issues over traditional labor economics, I think it has left a large population of forgotten workers feeling alienated and willing to align with other political movements seen as directly addressing their complaints.

The left wants to label these alternative movements as "far right" and in many policies they are, but the populist right has always managed to assemble an ideology (coherent or not) which has elements socialism. The official party name for the Nazis was the National German Socialist Worker's Party (NSDAP in German), for example. This allows them to capture disaffected workers on an economic basis while promoting other policies which would never align with a traditional Marxist-derived socialism.

Saty13 New York, NY January 24, 2017

Perhaps our politics has grown beyond the simple Right vs. Left divide. France's National Front party is indeed "leftist" in its support for workers, but it is "right wing" in its bigotry. The question we should be asking is, why has bigotry gone hand in hand with populism?

Populism, which I view favorably, is the legitimate rising up of the voices of the working class who always seem to end up with the short end of the economic stick whenever the rich grab too much of the wealth and power. The working class includes minorities and women, not just white men.

It seems that white working class men in particular, instead of placing the blame where it belongs (on mostly white rich men) have decided to blame minorities and immigrants. That's a problem.

On the other side of the coin, the problem of Democrats and other ruling elite parties, is that they are so caught up in advocating for those who face bigotry, that they forget that everyone who is "anti-immigration" is not necessarily a racist. They might just be genuinely concerned about too few job opportunities and concerned about growing domestic terrorist attacks.

We need to decouple populism and racism. The Democratic party needs to go back to its roots and start supporting economic populism while at the same time acknowledging that our immigration policy has to be fixed so that it doesn't hurt workers and it doesn't usher in more domestic terrorism. Why let a Trump own this discussion?

Truth777 ./ January 24, 2017
I'll never forget in college being told by a business management professor that outsourcing was a good thing and had only benefits for us. He said those behind replaced would get new, better paying jobs as a result. I didn't believe it then and now I suppose he probably doesn't preach that lie anymore.

Girish Kotwal Louisville, KY January 24, 2017
Why is there a death knell for social democracy sweeping across the world from India to USA and almost every democracy in between? The answer is very simple, it has not worked for the working class of several democracies. Whether in India where the Nehru dynasty ruled for most of the years since its independence or USA where the Bush and Clinton dynasties ruled for 20 of the past 28 years, the benefits to the masses from the ruling class that simply enriched itself did not trickle down in a significant measure. I always believed that democracies should reform or die and the death knell for social democracy was inevitable. Socialism was supposed to bring about an equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities, which did not happen in the western democracies. Sure some countries like France has a universal health care and a lot of benefits but if the masses do not feel that they are beneficiary of the wealth of the nation but instead are left behind that will have an influence on the ballot box. Social democracy has been breeding discontent all across the globe and the chickens have come home to roost. Partly it is the fault of the way democracies work. For a desire to serve the country you have to run elections and to run elections you have to campaign and to run campaigns you need money and where does the money come from, it comes from those who have it and lots of it and those who have it want their pound of flesh in the form of special access and tweaking of laws.

abo is a trusted commenter Paris January 24, 2017
It's very frustrating to read this kind of article in the NYT. One clue as to why is "a pre-Brexit Pew Research Center survey found ..." Brexit was six months ago. There have been several post-Brexit surveys which show the opposite. Either the writer does not know - I guess "based in Berlin" he doesn't really follow French news - or does not care - honest as Trump, I guess.

And to say that Social Democracy has lost support in Germany is just stupid, and is to confuse the party of that name with the principles of social democracy. It's like saying Americans don't support Democracy when they vote against Democrats. The centre-right in Germany, and pretty much everywhere in Europe, *is*, by any meaningful sense of the word, social democrat. That's actually the problem for the left.

I don't understand it. Americans are giving far more press to the National Front, even though the Front has regressed, not progressed, in France recently. Le Pen was a shoo-in to make the second round a year ago; now she might make it, but if she does, it will only because the left is divided three-way. It's as if, to cover their shame about Trump, the Americans wish the same misfortune on the rest of the world.

Joshua Brooklyn, NY January 24, 2017
"European social democrats have witnessed an extraordinary drop in support" because their policies aren't working. That simple. They are bad at what they do. They, like the modern Democratic Party, cater to career bureaucrats and well-connected professionals. For those people, free trade and financial liberalization is great because it primarily means lower prices on goods they consume but not make. Meanwhile working class people take on the negative consequences of these policies in terms of higher unemployment, asset bubbles, and less stability. They can even take on the veneer of liberalism by championing social policies that benefit them and their friends without any pesky economic downsides. This also allows them to present themselves as "good people" while decrying their opponents as all the "isms" and "phobes" they can come up with.

It's not working anymore. For heaven's sake, Hollande is the leader of France. If he was doing a great job then nobody would be talking about the National Front. The fact that the NF may be ascendant is as much a sign of the Socialists' failed governance as anything else. Obviously, for the Socialists and other "center-left" groups, the idea that their governing model and worldview may be fatally flawed is not something to be entertained.

Talesofgenji NY January 24, 2017

A more accurate headline might be

What went wrong with globalization ?

France is being de-industrialized at a rate incompatible with the pace of generational change. Praised by economists, notably Krugman, globalization is tearing social fabrics apart.

In 1985 France had 55 million inhabitants and fabricated 4 million cars a year. In 2016 it 65 million and made 2 million.

And it's de-industrialization is continuing. Today's announcement in Le Figaro is that Whirlpool will close it's factory in Amiens next year and move production to Poland.

That tearing of the social fabric is what proponents of globalization overlooked and what is finally appearing in politics

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