France avoids disaster, but tremors of political instability remain


Automation, globalization and fears raised by immigrants raise political stress that will only yield to leaders who can bring people together.

France dodged disaster in its presidential election – but it's beginning to look as though the political equilibrium that has dominated politics around the world for many years is in the process of coming apart.

Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European Union reformer and ally of the business community, defeated Marine Le Pen, standard-bearer of the far-right National Front, by nearly two-to-one.

But that sensible result came after the first round of French elections April 23 saw the near-collapse of the 50-year serial dominance of the left-wing Socialist Party and center-right Republican in favor of the National Front and a new centrist party, En Marche! (Onward!), created almost entirely by Macron.

It now looks as though France is becoming a multi-party country along untraditional lines, an outcome once unimagined by most political theorists. The old divisions – ‘Right’ (i.e. business) and ‘Left’ (i.e. workers and unions) – are being shaken up by pro- or anti-European Union views and even more deeply by the antagonism between social and economic winners (symbolized by Macron) and losers (led by the Le Pen family, Marine and her father before her.)

In England, the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) kicked over the managing political elite – both Conservatives and Labour – by provoking a ferocious, factually challenged and yet successful campaign against the European Union.

Led by a hard-leftwinger, Labour is in the process of being chewed up by the Scottish National Party and will likely be marginalized and suffer a huge defeat in the June national election.

Like France, England looks as though it's moving into a three-party-plus-two politics: Conservatives, Labour, UKIP (or the residue of the Brexit movement) and the centrist Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists. England has always had a split personality about Europe: Never fully in, but never fully out. To a degree, attitudes about what we used to call the “Common Market” follow whether voters are “winner” in the economy (educated, adaptive and upwardly and globally mobile) or “losers”  (un-educated, and at risk of being displaced by both globalization and automation in the workplace.)

At the end of the day, the Donald Trump phenomenon in America will be understood as a somewhat similar, outside-the-system factor that helped reshuffle a “stable” (ossified, to some) right versus left political order, Republicans versus Democrats.

Similarly, time was when Republicans represented the main street business community while Democrats spoke for the working class and urban minorities.

That’s not as simple these days.

In linking immigration and globalization to the decade-long slide of the largely white working class, Trump-ism has forced a decoupling of economic right and left as the primary engine of American politics and helped the evolution of a four-party system, here from left to right: Liberal Democrats (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren); Left-Center Democrats (Joe Biden, Barack Obama); Right Center (main street) Republicans; and Trump-ists (the more scary of whom are also called the alt-right.)

How come all of these changes are arising just now?

My guess is that the two key factors are the enormous rise of immigration across previously secure state boundaries and the disproportionate downward effect of global competition, automation and immigrant willingness to work for low wages.

This general pattern is less obvious in Michigan for a series of purely local reasons. One is race and ethnicity, with Detroit's population still around 80 percent African-American.

We should also note the disproportionate influence of West Michigan on state politics, in part the outcome of many millions of dollars contributed over the years to the Republican Party by wealthy families in the region.

Still, the overall pattern of political differences being very broadly defined by winners versus losers can be seen. Based on polling and focus group results, Trump voters are largely less educated, at greater risk of displacement by automation in the workplace and deeply threatened, they say, by the forces of globalization, immigration and a decline in American values.

Last fall’s Hillary Clinton voters, better educated, increasingly productive and mobile, and more easily able to adapt to changes in the world economy, make up the core of a party of economic and social winners.

Non-party or minor party voters tend to wish a plague on both their houses and place their priority on sheer survival.

When very long-standing social structures begin to come apart at the seams and begin the process of re-orientation, it's normal to expect heightened social stress and political conflict.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that's what we're seeing. And as I argued in last week's column, candidates who can articulate a plausible platform of bringing people together are likely to win.

As reader Robert Monroe commented last week, "While we are deeply divided, we are still a purple swing state. I believe the candidate who comes out with a deep and coherent vision of the meaning and future of work stands the best chance of united the voters. Both parties seem caught in the old paradigms and solutions.

“Technology will continue its destructive creation, and no one seems immune to the changes coming."

Let’s hope we are somehow luckier than we deserve.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 05/09/2017 - 11:34am

Your title of this article is exactly why Bridge is not non-partisan. What is a disaster to one person is an unfortunate happening to another.

Nancy Derringer
Tue, 05/09/2017 - 11:50am

Rich, this is Phil's column. By definition, it's his opinion, so he's free to call the election what he wants. 

Tue, 05/09/2017 - 5:02pm

Ms. Derringer,
I agree with you about Mr. Power's freedom to say what he feels. I disagree with you; Rich has a similar freedom to say what he feels.

I have to agree about the partisanship of Mr. Power and Bridge, but not in the sense of the political parties. I see it as the partisanship of a point of view, an expectation of readers thinking, or maybe it is just an impression of Bridge being aloof from the readers.

I will continue to support Bridge both actively reading/commenting and financially because of how the format allows readers to share their perspectives, and how the readers' comments cause me to think and articulate my perspective.
I encourage Bridge to consider developing a process for engaging readers about Bridge, it could be an effective tool for making Bridge sustainable and helping it grow.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 05/09/2017 - 3:16pm

Regarding the French election in general, I don't see the outcome as being much different than what just happened here.

Instead of focusing solely on a candidate's experience and achievements, outside forces were influencing the outcome as much as they could. Only this time they managed to distract the voters long enough to succeed with their goals.

But in terms of actual importance on what is happening here, I'd be a little more concerned with a country whose one neighbor is telling its citizens to return home immediately and another neighbor who is now warning its citizens that they only have 10 minutes to respond to an attack (think: "Duck & Cover").

That same country where three US Carrier Strike Groups are currently steaming towards will have much more impact on us than who is currently running France.

John Q. Public
Tue, 05/09/2017 - 10:36pm

France is hastening its own demise. I wonder how long until the leveling of the Arc de Triomphe and the looting of the Louvre by those who were "just trying to make a better life for themselves".

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 05/14/2017 - 3:33am

“Technology will continue its destructive creation, and no one seems immune to the changes coming."
There is an old story about the John Deere salesman going to the Chinese leader and saying this tractor will do the work of a 100 men. The Chinese leader responds, "what will I do with these 100 men?" Hmmm.

ron phillips
Fri, 05/19/2017 - 10:43am

I voted for Trump. According to your column that means I'm uneducated, distressed with work and unsure about how I might adapt to changing conditions. Not so. I voted for Trump because he is not a politician, is pragmatic, and is articulate and straightforward in proposals. So far he has stirred up the "old guard" in both parties. The are swarming to sting him to death. The news media is complicit in ensuring his demise. But I appreciate your commentary even if I disagree.