By Bill Emmott–LONDON – The new fault line in politics, according to Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, is between globalists and patriots. It is an argument similar to those being made by euroskeptics in the United Kingdom and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in the United States. It is, however, as false as it is dangerous.
Judging by the results of the second and final round of France’s regional elections on December 13, it is also an argument that French voters, at least, roundly rejected. They cast 73% of their ballots for the National Front’s rivals, depriving the party of even a single victory.
Le Pen accused the mainstream parties of ganging up on her, describing their cooperation as a denial of democracy. Her argument is, of course, a classic example of sour grapes; the entire point of a two-round voting system is to force parties and their supporters to seek a consensus and form partnerships. Unless and until the National Front finds a way to win allies, it will not achieve an electoral breakthrough. (The same is likely to prove true about Trump.)
That is not to say that Le Pen’s claim – that those who vote for her party are the only true patriots – should be casually dismissed. She has homed in on a powerful message, one with the potential to attract supporters from other parties. That’s why it must be rebutted, both in France and elsewhere. The assumption underlying such nationalist bombast – that a country’s interests are better served by being closed rather than open – is extremely dangerous.
The belief that openness is treason and closure is patriotic is a rejection of the entire post-1945 framework of politics and policy in the developed world. It is an attempt to turn back the clock to the interwar period, when the focus was on closing off: imposing onerous trade restrictions and persecuting or expelling minority groups. This was true even in the United States, which enacted the most restrictive immigration laws since the country’s founding.
The postwar years marked a complete change of direction, as countries opened up, allowing freer flows of trade, capital, ideas, and people. This process became known as globalization only after China and India joined in during the 1980s, but it had started long before. It was globalization, after all, that created what in France became known as Les Trente Glorieuses – the 30 glorious years of rapidly rising living standards following the end of WWII.
Le Pen and her fellow populists claim that globalization was either an act of foolish generosity that helped the rest of the world at the expense of the nation, or a phenomenon that benefited only the elites and not ordinary people. For them, patriotism means being harder-headed about protecting the national interest and adopting more democratic policies that help the working masses, not jet-setting fat cats.
The second part of this argument – that the interests of ordinary people have been subordinated to those of the elite – must be heard and responded to. A democracy in which a majority feels neglected or exploited is not sustainable. Either the government or the entire system will be overturned.
Elected officials clearly need to find answers to high unemployment and declining living standards. What mainstream parties need to be make clear, however, is that the answers to those problems do not lie in closing borders or minds. There is no example, anywhere in history, of a society or an economy that has prospered over the long term by rejecting globalism.
Moreover, though openness may not guarantee prosperity, it has always been a prerequisite for growth. To be sure, the optimal amount of openness is a matter of debate. But the bigger, more productive arguments are about how to shape education, labor markets, scientific research, and social-welfare policies in order to help societies adapt to the world around them. The patriotic choice – the national interest – has always consisted in crafting domestic policies that best take advantage of globalization.
For mainstream parties in France, the Conservatives in the UK, and Trump’s more internationally minded Republican rivals in the US, there is nothing to be gained from copying the arguments of their extremist counterparts. Doing so would yield crucial ground in the political battle over how best to serve the country and its people. Mainstream parties must reclaim the mantle of patriotism and redefine the national interest accordingly. In today’s world, the national interest lies in managing openness – not in throwing it away.
(This article originally published in The Project Syndicate on Dec 21. Writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Economist.)