Commentary

The French Never Learn

Should we laugh or should we cry? The first round of the French presidential elections are over. For months, media and polling agencies predicted that Jacques Chirac (the supposedly conservative president) would face Lionel Jospin (the socialist prime minister) in the runoff for the French presidency next month. Voters, however, decided otherwise. Now the so-called extreme rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen will face Jacques Chirac. Yes, that’s correct, the socialists didn’t even make it to the second round of the elections. But that does not mean that a free market and a free society will now reign in France under Chirac or Le Pen. For both men are protectionists and neo-socialists in their economic and public policies.

I am, of course, delighted to see the Socialist Party humiliated and yet also shocked by the outcome of the elections. Equally delightful, France’s main parties of the left are now calling on voters to vote for President Jacques Chirac in the second round of the presidential elections. Can you imagine Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, or Ralph Nader begging Americans to vote for Bush or Reagan? Certainly this is good news.

But the bad news is that this vote does not signify support for free markets and small government. Neither candidate (Chirac or Le pen) is “libertarian,” or even “conservative” in the American sense of the term. Le Pen used to pay lip service to markets. But now he is best known for being an extremely nationalistic opponent of globalization. He also has an unpleasant reputation for being racist. And he got a lot of attention a few years ago for calling the Nazi gas chambers “a detail in history.”

On the other hand, Jacques Chirac is hopeless. He was elected seven years ago sounding like the Republicans who took over Congress in 1994. But whereas the GOP at least made some positive steps, Chirac took France further in the wrong direction. The result of his statist policies and large tax increases is an all-time high unemployment rate. That incompetence put the socialists and the communists back in the French Assembly less than 2 years after Chirac’s victory in 1995. This time around, Chirac swears that things will be different and that he will cut taxes. He is, however, a bit less daring about reforming France’s social security and her 35-hour work week. As he says, “we still have to do things a la Francaise.”

If Chirac is elected he will continue to promote big government programs, more regulation, high taxes, and bad policies across the board. That’s what he has done for 30 years. And there is no reason for him to do any differently now, especially since at 70 years old he doesn’t have a political future. This is why the socialists and communists apparently are comfortable in calling on voters to elect Chirac. They know from experience that Chirac represents no danger to the core values of socialism, and, besides, he won’t be around much longer.

In addition to the two candidates chosen-Chirac and Le Pen-the action of French voters shows that they don’t really want less government or sound economic policies. If you add the socialist votes, the communist votes, and the other leftist votes you realize that nothing has changed and the French people still overwhelmingly vote on the left side of the spectrum. There was a free-market candidate, Alain Madelin. But his campaign to “give men back liberty and responsibility, give them the chance to blossom and succeed,” did not succeed. The 55-year old leader of the Liberal Democracy Party got 3 percent of the votes. The fact that few people voted for him demonstrates that the French still do not get it.

The French have no understanding of why the economic situation there is so bad. They don’t realize that big government is why France fell from the fifth richest country in Europe to the twelfth richest country - just ahead of socialist Greece. The French still worship the government.

Voting for Le Pen last week means that people prefer to forget that globalization and free trade have made France the world’s sixth biggest foreign trader. Nonetheless, given unemployment and other problems, the French apparently would rather blame immigration instead of years of socialist policies for the economic situation. Will French voters ever learn the importance of freedom and responsibility? There is reason to doubt.

Veronique de Rugy, who left France to live in America, is a fiscal policy analyst at the Cato Institute.