Jacob L. Shapiro: Hello everyone, and welcome to another Geopolitical Futures podcast. This week I am joined by one of our new analysts, Xander Snyder. We’re happy to have you Xander.
Xander Snyder: Thanks, this will be fun.
JLS: We’re hoping to just have a conversation today about what’s been going on in France, and I want to be conscious of not ascribing too much influence to Marine Le Pen and to the hysterics around the election itself because, as we often write at GPF, elections don’t matter that much and individuals matter even less. But I think that this election in particular does say some very important things about what’s going on in Europe right now.
So just to kind of rehash for those who need rehashing of it, the French election happens in two rounds. So the first round is sort of a wide group of different parties and people, and if somebody gets 50 percent in the first round, they win, but that almost never happens. So the first round is to whittle it down to two people, and then in the second round you get two people who face off against each other in a runoff, and you go from there.
So the first round this year was remarkable in the sense that none of the establishment candidates from establishment parties did particularly well. The two leading vote-getters were Emmanuel Macron who started his own new party, which is nominally progressive or centrist, it sort of depends on what day of the week it is how you want to describe it.
And then Marine Le Pen who is the head of the National Front, which is a party that has been around since the ’70s, which is considered a right-wing nationalist party. It’s not the greatest way of describing it if you actually look at their platform, some of the economic policies might be described as more left wing. What’s really “right wing” about them is their nationalism and what some people would call their racism, although I think that Marine Le Pen has tried very hard to purge the party of some of those more negative influences.
The two other leading vote-getters were Fillon, who was sort of the conservative candidate that everybody thought was going to win and was beset by scandal after scandal such that he just couldn’t get his momentum going, and Jean-Luc Melenchon, who was sort of the far-left Bernie Sanders of France who did much better than people thought. He got 19.6 percent of the vote but not enough to get to the second round.
So that’s where we are right now. The second round takes place on May 7 and really this is going to be a vote between in some ways a pro EU candidate and an anti-EU candidate. Le Pen has said she wants to renegotiate the relationship with the EU as soon as she gets in, and if there’s not a successful renegotiation, she wants to put it to a referendum and hopefully leave. Macron is really promising policies more of the same.
So one of the reasons this is so important to talk about, it’s less because of France, more because of what this says about the state of Europe. So that’s sort of where we are, right this second. Xander, I thought it might be a useful thing to start off by talking the tension between individuals and between geopolitics. I know that as somebody who has started recently with us and has been doing a lot of training on this, that it’s sometimes hard to see the boundary there. How do you see the relationship between Le Pen and the French elections.
XS: I think you wrote two pieces recently on what’s going on in France. One was a Reality Check and the other was a Deep Dive that placed this election in greater geopolitical context and they’re worth reading. I think an interesting distinction that you drew was whether or not Le Pen controls her constituency or her constituency controls her. And it’s an important distinction because you say this could be the difference between the National Front becoming a reanimation of some of the really bad things that happened in 20th century Europe versus it just becoming a 21th century political party that’s just trying to balance and find a way to essentially stay in power, which is why Le Pen has been exorcising some of the more radical elements of her party to try to get to where she is right now.
So, I’d actually be curious just to start off to know a little bit more about what you meant by that distinction. Who’s controlling who and why does that matter in a geopolitical sense? In a sense, that’s greater than just the election.
JLS: The reason that matters for me is because I am thinking about trying to define what was really bad about 20th century Europe and what really might have geopolitical significance. For me, in 20th century Europe, that was really the rise of fascism and the rise of totalitarianism. If you read a lot of the literature about totalitarianism in general, Hannah Arendt is the one I’ve studied most closely but these ideas are not specific to her.
Totalitarianism and fascism and communism, even as Stalin used it, it was not about the man. The ideology sort of ended up privileging the role, but these were mass movements and you couldn’t have the move towards totalitarianism and towards fascism if you hadn’t had the creation of a mass movement.
So in some ways, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, these people were spawns of these mass movements that broke down all previous ties and which created this new mystical sense of what the nation was. And it had some relationship to reality, but it also tried to break things apart so there wasn’t Prussia and Bavaria and all the stuff anymore. There was the romantic Teutonic Knight marching around in the forest type stuff, and there were these ideas about in some cases purity. And all of these things that developed were a result of the mass movement itself.
So when I say it matters whether Le Pen is leading her constituents or her constituents are leading her, it actually has nothing to do with Le Pen, nothing to do with what power she would or wouldn’t have if she came into office. I think she would actually be more limited in carrying out some of her more radical policies that people don’t like or people are vocal about not liking.
But the real issue here is, is French society or are there parts of European society that are breaking down to the point where you can see the type of mass movement that happened in the 1930s and the early 1940s and had people gravitating towards these forms of government that ended up perpetrating all of these wars and all of these horrors that really Europe and most of the Western world has been afraid of since? Does that answer the question?
XS: I think it does. It jumped out to me because I think it hints at a deeper issue in social sciences generally, which is teasing out causality when you can’t do a double-blind study. It is very difficult, what’s causing what. And so you get to this point where, for example, Le Pen and the National Front, it’s difficult to tell if her actions are just a symptom of these trends you are talking about or if she has some degree of control over them. Which do you think it is?
JLS: Well I think that Le Pen is a creation of her time and of her constraints. I mean, you can’t think about Le Pen and not think about her father who is a Holocaust denier who really was the person who was in charge of putting the National Front on the map. You can’t think about him and not think about his experiences in the French Algerian war. You can’t think about the French Algerian war without thinking about France’s history as an empire and its history of colonialism and its battles with Great Britain. You can’t think about that stuff without thinking about Napoleon and the French Revolution and we’re sort of right back at the beginning of all this stuff, right?
So I think that Le Pen really is just an individual manifestation of a larger thing. There would be no Le Pen if there wasn’t high unemployment in France and if there wasn’t stagnant GDP growth in France and if it wasn’t that in the northeast of France, a lot of the industrial production centers are suffering. They look across the border to Germany, and they see that Germany has historically low unemployment rates and that, thus far, the Germans have been spared from the major ramifications of the 2008 financial crisis.
So I really do think that she is a creation of her time and a creation of her father and a creation of French geopolitics. And she is both enlivened by those things and completely restricted by them, and I think some of what Le Pen is doing is you can watch the individual try and strain against those things as much as possible. I mean, she kicked her own father out of the party. She’s doing everything she can to purge the party of the parts that people might think are too radical because she is trying to be pragmatic.
But A: She’s going to have a hard time doing that, the second round polls if they are right say it’s like a 62 to 38 margin. B: If she even got to power, we’d have to wait until legislative elections in June to see if she could even get some of the legislative support let alone the popular support for some of her approaches. And C: It’s hard to forget who she is and who her father was and all of the things that they have said, and for a lot of people, that’s not what it means to be French.
So again, she’s an interesting laboratory for thinking about what an individual can do and what the limits on an individual are. She’s interesting because she’s compelling and charismatic and in some ways able to articulate some of these issues better than anyone else. I think that’s what makes her a powerful politician but I don’t want to ascribe to her the force of a world historical person or somebody who by themselves is going to completely shape the way geopolitics is working.
XS: Sure, it’s not a juncture point per se, it is part of a larger trend.
JLS: Yeah it’s a much larger trend, and she’s really just a small part in a much larger chapter. It’s funny, I was being interviewed by an Australian newspaper a couple days ago and one of the things they asked me about Le Pen was they asked me if I thought the EU was going to fail. I sort of looked at the person strangely, and I said, look what does it mean for the EU to fail?
From my perspective, it sort of already has. You’ve got the Hungarians and the Poles ignoring EU directives on refugees and migrants. You’ve got Britain saying sorry we’re out, we don’t want any part of this. The French themselves have been ignoring deficit rules from the EU for years. The Italians and Brussels are going back and forth on banking regulations and literally are fiddling while Rome is burning.
So you have all these people ignoring EU directives. You have Germany sort of sitting there in it all in a very economically vulnerable situation. Le Pen is just one small chapter in this, and she represents the particular French chapter in this, which is an important one. France now is the second-largest economy in the EU, and in a lot of ways the EU was a French idea. It was them who wanted to build the EU to keep Germany where it was. To solve the problem that created all these wars in the European continent since 1870.
So yeah she’s a part of all of those things. She’s a fairly small part of it and an interesting part of it. If she did come to power and if the National Front swept legislative elections, there might actually be something to say about this being in the immediate term important in the way that the EU demise carries out. But the demise is happening. It will happen with Le Pen or without Le Pen.
If Macron sails into the presidency, I completely expect him to be equally blocked because France is very divided, and he’ll have five years of status quo policies, and we’ll be back here in 2022. We’ll be talking about the same stuff and maybe Le Pen will even have a greater percentage of the vote.
XS: So I think something that you mentioned a minute ago will give us kind of opportunity to dive in just a little bit more into how Geopolitical Futures thinks about the world. You kind of describe this person who is straining against all these domestic political pressures and just trying to figure just what options she actually has. Now at Geopolitical Futures, one of the things that we really focus on is this idea of constraints.
We believe that people end up in power, parties end up in power because they are effective at understanding what steps they need to take to get there, right? And there’s only so many options once they’re there that they can take. So what we try to do a lot of the time is understand what those options are, what those constraints are and go from there, and that’s what lets us have a little bit more insight into just describing the situation. What sort of constraints do you see Le Pen or Macron facing following the election that either would face regardless of who wins?
JLS: Look either one of them is going to be stuck with a very difficult economic situation that has been building up over time, and I am not convinced that either one of them has the policies in their toolkit to solve it, and that’s not an indictment of either of them. I just think that it’s a particularly difficult structural situation that they’re in, and it’s not something that’s going to be solved overnight.
The problem is that it’s a problem that has been developing for so long that people’s patience is probably not in line with the things that have to be done to fix 10 percent unemployment and 25 percent youth unemployment and stagnant GDP growth and all these other things for a couple years.
On the actual legislative level, again Macron’s party is brand new. The National Front has made some headway but, in the last legislative elections, ended up not taking that many seats because the other parties banded together against them to keep them out. Le Pen has said she wants to take France out of the E.U. It’s not exactly clear how that works. She could call a referendum, although either the court or the Parliament has to approve that step so it’s not like she can just do it herself.
Its less clear – does she need the approval of the population in some way to do it? Does she not? That’s an open question. So those are all technical constraints in what they are doing. And then the broader constraints are that there was an internal logic to the EU. We’ve written a lot and George Friedman, who is our chairman and founder, has written a lot about the inherent, illogical nature of the EU in the sense that it wasn’t quite completely taking everyone’s sovereignty, but it still wanted to take a little bit of it away. But there was a logic behind the EU: It was this idea of, what is Germany’s role in Europe going to be?
There was this sense that if you could get Germany into an economic block that was beneficial for it, you would basically be controlling Germany’s imperatives, and Germany’s imperatives have always been to spread out over the Continent. That’s what has really been the approximate geopolitical issue in Europe, basically since German unification in the late 19th century.
Is a French president or if France leaves the EU, are they just going to ignore that or are they just going to run away from that? What is their relationship with Germany going to be from now on? Who is France going to trade with? What are the implications of the economy going to be if you start breaking those things down? Can the French really come back with a currency that quickly?
These are all the sort of difficult constraints that make things happen now, and one other thing I would just throw on there is that the inertia is also a very powerful force. Brussels has been there for a long time. I think one of the reasons that George often says that he doesn’t expect the EU to collapse, he sort of just expects it to go away into obsolescence, where they might still have meetings and they might still issue directives but everybody will kind of ignore them. We’ll wake up one day and people will realize, ok there’s an EU, but there’s not really an EU.
So I think those are all parts of constraints that both Macron and Le Pen face. In that sense, they’re probably more similar to each other than they are to anyone else in France.
XS: A metaphor that we’ve used before that I think is apt is that the EU has essentially allowed France post World War II to, like you said, control Germany’s directives to a degree, keep them in a cage because there is this institution in which Germany has become essentially the most at least economically powerful country, but France is powerful military lets them play an outsized role in that institution as well.
So looking beyond the elections, looking beyond what’s going to happen in the next month or two, what are and what have France’s historical imperatives on the Continent been, and how do they develop as the EU becomes a weaker institution?
JLS: That’s an interesting question. I would say that one of the things you have to think about in terms of France and Germany’s relationship is that the EU was also built around a divided Germany, and one of the things we often talk about and write about is that a lot of these institutions that exist, exist because of inertia, what I was talking before about inertia. NATO is an anti-Soviet alliance. The EU’s aim was partly to contain Germany, was partly also anti-Soviet, was about rebuilding Europe.
But the EU also contained western Germany, right? Like for most of the EU and its predecessors, what we’re talking about here is Germany that is divided into west and east. In some ways, the German model gets completely upended at German unification. Nobody was expecting the Soviet Union to fall, nobody was expecting German unification on that quick a scale. And once Germany unified, it set in motion an inevitable set of circumstances that lead us to this point where France and Germany are coming at each other with cross purposes. It was easier for France to deal with a Germany that was cut in half than it was for France to deal with a Germany that was whole even when Germany had to go through, you know, the economic struggles of reintegrating the east into it.
So I mean, going forward on the Continent Germany and France have always been the two dominant players. The thing that I would say is Germany has large economic problems, demographic issues, internal issues in terms of people thinking about, well, Germany wasn’t always Germany. It only unified in the 1870s. Is there any chance that some of the separatism that we’ve seen in other parts of Europe might come to Germany?
France also I sort of look on as not necessarily a declining power but one which is really internally focused which has major domestic issues. They are not exactly about to go adventuring all over the place. You’re right that they do have a powerful military, but it’s pretty much maxed out right now with their deployments fighting ISIS in the Middle East and the stuff that they’re doing in Mali and North Africa. I think this really gets to a shift in European history in the sense that what happens in the west will be less important than what happens in the east.
When I look at Europe right now, the really dynamic economies and the really dynamic things that are happening in Eastern Europe. When you look at what’s happening in Hungary, when you look at what’s happening in Poland, you know I think that’s the place where the future of Europe is really going to be decided. And that might sound a little bit strained, especially since we are so used to thinking about Germany and France being the main contenders on the Continent. But I really do see a much weaker Germany than we’ve had before, a weaker France that is much more inwardly facing.
And when you have a weak Germany, when you have a weak Russia, there have been periods where Poland sort of rises and where these Eastern European powers have their day. So I think we’re thinking about what the EU and what Europe is going to look like 10, 20, 30 years from now. In some ways, it’s not so important whatever argument the French have with themselves about what it means to be French. In some ways, what’s more important is what’s happening in Eastern Europe, what is the relationship going to be between east and west, what is the relationship between a declining Germany and a declining Russia going to look like, how is France going to deal with that, how is the U.K. going to get involved. Those are some of the questions that I would see.
But I would turn that question around on you Xander. How do you think about the future of the EU 20, 30 years out, considering some of the things we’ve talked about?
XS: Yeah, I think something that we’ve written about that gives some insight into what’s going to happen is this idea of nationalism, which isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing. I’m not ascribing a value judgement to it. But as we see the EU grow weaker, as we see Brussels increasingly issuing these orders that no one pays attention to, the idea of identity has crept back into politics in the EU in a powerful way.
People are trying to understand their role in the EU, or well on the European continent, and as that trend progresses, I think we’re going to see more attachment to national identity, and that could go a couple different ways. But this idea of multilateralism that has really prevailed in this period following World War II up until today. I think we’ll sort of fade out as a period in history.
Now how that impacts geopolitical interests on the Continent, I mean I guess you can argue that the existence of multilateral institutions don’t ultimately change things. But as European countries begin to focus more inwardly on their own country, I think we will see a greater focus on national interest rather than continental interests, which is really what the focus had been, especially during the Cold War when Europe fell under the umbrella of U.S. protection. So I think we will see a refocusing on what it means to be French, for example, and therefore what is good for the French.
JLS: Yeah I guess one of the things I would push back a little and just say that I don’t think it’s that multilateral institutions are not important, they can be very important. The deeper issue there is that the multilateral institutions have to have some kind of mission and some kind of purpose. And I think that, and this is one of the things also that France in particular helps articulate, which is that you know multilateralism and international institutions and all of these things were a big part of what happened in 2008.
And I think people have a difficult time separating 2008 from the way that financial crisis spread across the world globally because everybody was so exposed to each other. Particularly in Europe, where a lot of these countries didn’t have control over things like currency that most nation-states do because they are all tied into the E.U. They didn’t have some of the tools that were necessary or the tools that most nation-states have at their disposal to respond to some of the economic problems.
So the question then becomes, is there a purpose or is there some kind of ideological construct in which multilateral institutions can once again be seen as useful? I think one of the main reasons Le Pen has risen as far as she has in France is that nobody else really has any good policies or any good vision of what’s going on. We talked a lot about constraints, and I am not saying that somebody needs a policy that’s going to work, but I am saying that the opposing side needs to present some sense of confidence that it knows what it’s doing and that it has a potential solution that it can produce.
When I look at somebody like Macron, I described him in one of my pieces as an empty suit. I think you actually commented that I was judging him unfairly or that I wasn’t being objective and I responded back to you, no, I am actually being objective. I have no idea what Macron stands for and most French citizens that I have talked to that are my friends also don’t know what he stands for.
He’s called himself a progressive. Other people call him a centrist. I don’t think that it makes much sense, you know being a moderate is actually, that means something. When you call someone a moderate, you are not saying they don’t have any positions or that they’re some kind of equal distance between one position and another position. Moderation is a particular kind of outlook on the world and can articulate in meaningful ways and approaches to problems that can give confidence.
So I think the challenge for those who would favor multilateral institutions and for those who would favor a less narrow definition of the national interest especially in terms of economics and in terms of refugees and things like this, they have to somehow articulate solutions to the problems in a way that, A: projects confidence, and B: actually takes into account people in their own nation-state.
A lot of times now I feel like nationalists have their solution, and it might be an imperfect one but at least they have a point. They have talking points and you know who Le Pen is and you know what you’re going to get from Le Pen each time, whereas the others you don’t really know what they stand for, what they would do if they got into office or whether they have any confidence that what they would do if they got into office would work in the first place.
So I don’t actually expect nationalism to always be as dominant as it is without any other ideological challenger. I certainly think it’s winning the day right now, and I expect it to be very different going forward. But at a certain point, there’s going to have to be some kind of political opposition to it. I am not sure what that looks like eventually, but I don’t think it’s just going to be all nationalism, all the time. I think the thing that nationalism has done though is that it has redefined the conversation towards the working class, the middle class.
At a certain point, this becomes class based and not necessarily nation based because the people who are voting for these parties and are voting for the nationalist message are people who have gotten screwed over by the current economy and who the elites have just paid no attention to. The gulf between them is getting wider and wider, and so they turn to things like nationalism and patriotism because those are ideas that can give them pride and give them a way of articulating what the problem is. That was a little long winded but you started with multilateral institutions and sort of how I would respond to it.
XS: Yeah I think that makes sense, I mean if you look at the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis. A lot of people all over the world saw that what had been effectively policy for a couple of decades really utterly failed them. So the question has been asked, well what’s good for me? And the question that can follow that is, well who am I? Am I a European, am I middle class, American, who do I identify with and what does that imply in terms of policies that are going to be effective for my group, right? So I think that is certainly one of the trends that we’re seeing brought out more clearly in this French election but also certainly in the U.S. and over the last couple of years.
JLS: Well yeah, and this is actually one of the ways in which the distinction between right wing and left wing breaks down because really when we’re talking about somebody like Le Pen or the National Front or any of these nationalist parties. What they’re doing is they’re defining the nation in a narrower sense. They want certain people to be excluded from the nation, they want there to be a very high barrier, a high bar in terms of what it takes to become a part of the nation. Once you are a part of the nation though, in a lot of ways they want the economic and security and political benefits that are afforded to you to be much more than most traditional right wing or liberal things would think of.
That’s why, when I say that if you read Le Pen’s platform, if you read some of the policies of the National Front, you might expect them more in the far-left’s positions. I mean, one of the things that Jean-Luc Melenchon shared with Le Pen was that he also wanted to take France out of the EU. So if you had elected this “far-right” candidate in Le Pen, not elected but if Le Pen had gotten through and Melenchon had gotten through, you would’ve had two anti-EU candidates, right? They would’ve been on completely different spectrums and the difference between them wouldn’t have even been in terms of getting into the EU. It would’ve been… I am not actually sure, the difference would’ve I guess been on how to define the French nation and how France would deal with defining Frenchness. But again, I am just trying to tease out how this is a lot more complicated than people are making it out to be and the dividing lines that we had before are really stripping away.
XS: Why does that matter? Why does it matter what Frenchness is? Because I think that on some level that’s really the crux of the problem. We’ve certainly come back to this idea in our written pieces, but why is that aspect of identity playing such an outsized role now?
JLS: Yeah I think about that sometimes, and I think that this is an important place to talk about the difference between a nation and nationalism. And so nationalism is an ideology. The nation is really a group of people who share a certain thing common. There are a lot of different definitions for it, but let’s say a common language or ethnicity even principles can define a nation sometimes. It can be a very broad definition. I think one of the reasons nationalism as an ideology, as an organizing principle for how to govern, I think one of the reasons it’s so effective is because it leverages something that is very real, which is the nation. There really wasn’t nationalism, we can’t speak about nationalism before the 17th and 18th centuries, but we can certainly speak about nations before the 17th and 18th centuries.
So I think the point about, you know you asked what does it mean to or why is it important that you have to define what the nation is. I think that in some ways the reason that it’s important is because nationalism has really won the day as a governing ideology. Nation-state is almost a synonym for state these days, and most countries in the world, not all of them but most, are nation-states. And people think in terms of the nation-state and nationalism as an organizing principle sort of, I mean they’ve accepted it without really thinking about it, without even really knowing it. Partly because you know it’s responding to something real, and at that point if that’s how you’re going to organize things then defining who is in the nation is going to become incredibly important. And this has been important in different points throughout European history and throughout the history of nations and nationalism in general.
I mean, the French Revolution – and you know more about the French revolution than I do I think Xander – but I mean the beginning of the French Revolution began with defining the nation, right? And the Third Estate had to define a vision of the nation and the way they defined it was everybody who was in the Third Estate was in the nation. So the aristocracy, maybe some of the clergy, were not going to be considered part of it because it became more important to talk about equality. One of the reasons equality becomes one of the defining things that the French Revolution pushes for is because of the way that the French society is structured beforehand and because of the particular economic things that they are responding to.
So I think it’s important, and I think that people are thinking about it because they are trying to figure out how to respond to problems. And if you are a government, you have to know who you’re responsible for taking care of, who you are responsible for defending. So if you are the president of France, whether you are Le Pen or Macron, you have to have a sense in your mind of who it’s your job to protect. For Le Pen, she’s saying very clearly, I am sorry, it’s very sad about these refugees and these migrants who don’t have a home, that doesn’t mean that I have to protect them. My job would be to be the president of France and to protect France, and I will protect France. And maybe protecting France means that I just can’t let everybody in as much as I would want to and as much as, you know, it’s a sad situation that they’re in.
So you know that’s how she wants to define the nation, and because of that definition she pursues certain policies and people gravitate towards her because they feel, I don’t know, that their society is under threat or their job opportunities are under threat. You know, now we’re talking about the things that make it convincing. But I think that’s why people are thinking so much about this because before you connect policies, you have to know who the policies are meant for.
XS: Yeah and I think the example of the French Revolution is actually another nice example of constraints in action, right? Because if we think about how the French Revolution is romanticized – the phrase liberte, egalite, fraternite, that comes to mind – is this idea of these higher moral principles that were driving this big, this really critically important event in history.
But, you know, you mentioned the Third Estate and identity. The reason that that group of individuals appealed to that idea of equality is because they were trying to gain political power to push back against essentially what was an increase in taxes that the nobility wasn’t going to have to incur to the same degree, that was exacerbated by a food shortage, a crisis, due to a bad harvest. And so it’s not like I mean some of these people probably had higher moral principles, but that framing would never have existed if those people were not stuck in that situation trying to solve that problem, so it’s just another example of constraints.
JLS: Yeah and I think one of the things to think about here is – and this one of the things that makes the United States different than those European countries and I know that Trump is in the same vein as Brexit and Le Pen but I also sort of think of him as separate because I can’t really speak about the United States as a nationalist entity.
And one of the reasons I have a hard time thinking about nationalism in the United States is because, first of all, you can’t say the United States nation, that sounds kind of awkward, you sort of have to say the American nation. But the American nation really sprouts up out of nothing, and I shouldn’t say nothing, right? Because what happens is you get a bunch of immigrants who come to the United States and fight wars or wipe out the native population. Point being that they haven’t been here for time and memorial, you know? Like the United States was founded in 1776, and there weren’t really people of the group that founded the United States there for much longer before it.
Whereas when you are dealing with France, you are dealing with – and you know there wasn’t always a France, certainly if you go back thousands of years, there’s different iterations. If you are even talking about France around the Enlightenment, there’s still different languages, there is no harmonized French system. But you are still dealing with people where there’s a very deep and serious tie between the blood and between the land. This is one of the things that used to be in a lot of National Front discourse, which was that there is an innate relationship between your blood and between your land, and it’s tied in this very particular way.
So one of the interesting things to me about Trump is that he is, you know, putting America first and he’s making America great again, but I think there is a real difference between what he’s talking about and between what’s happening in France because Trump can’t make the same appeals to American nationalists that I think someone like a Le Pen in France or even, you know, the Brexit people in Britain can make to a British nation or to a French nation.
When Trump was out there, what won Trump his election was connecting with working-class and middle-class voters and making them feel like they had a champion, like he was going to be their champion. A number of them were white I think, and that obviously plays into, that’s maybe a counter to some of the things that I am saying. But again, I think that Trump had to be much more class based about it whereas in a country like France, in a country like Great Britain or even in a country like Germany, yes a lot of it is economic based and a lot of it is class based, but there’s also this other element that just isn’t there in the United States.
XS: And that’s because these countries have had so much more history shaped by geopolitical constraints to form these concepts of identity, is that what you’re saying?
JLS: It is, although I think one of the ironic things about that is, and I sort of, we talked about this a little bit at the beginning when we were talking about totalitarianism and fascism and how the mass movement creates this sort of mystical idealized version of the nation. Yes, all these countries do have longer histories and can go back further in time. At the same time though, like I said earlier, nationalism is really, we’re talking about the 17th and 18th century so yes they go back in time and there is this conception of this relationship between the land and the people going back thousands of years and on a certain level its true. But even that is sort of constructive, right? It’s maybe got a few extra hundred years in the hopper so maybe that’s why it’s more deeply felt.
But, we’re over and over talking about the same thing. I do think there is some difference though in the sense that the French can’t remember a time when they weren’t in France, whereas it’s part of the American narrative or myth about itself that it got here and it was people fleeing from something and they wanted to create something based around principles rather than a shared type of nation. So yeah, that’s sort of what I mean about that.
XS: So I think that kind of lets us all tie it together and the last thought that I want to bring up is actually what you pointed out in your recent Reality Check, which I suggest people go take a look at, it’s called “Declaration of the Rights of France.” It’s at the end and rather you call out a conflict in the French constitution, I think it’s in Articles 1 and 3, one of which is the idea of universalism and the right and equality of all men everywhere. And then later on that same page, there’s this idea that the state, the nation needs to have sovereignty in order to enforce the rights of individuals in that state.
So, one is rights of people in that state, the other is rights of people everywhere, right? And I think that kind of speaks to the distinction between nationalism and the nation that you’re talking about.
JLS: I would just jump in and say, it’s actually not the constitution which tells you something about France. It’s the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is one of the great documents that comes out of the French Revolution, but it’s not the French constitution. In the same way that the Declaration of Independence is not the American constitution, right? It’s separate. And Article 1 does say men are born and will remain equal in rights, and then Article 3 says that the principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.
So the first thing the French Revolution does is say, there are free and equal rights that everyone has by virtue of being a human being, right? And one of the things the French Revolution does is it declares this freedom and this equality for everyone as such just for being a human being, just for existing and breathing and being there. And within two articles, it gives that freedom away by saying all of this sovereignty is in the nation. And I think the reasons it does that is because it is impractical, it doesn’t work to have everybody just being completely free all the time with no accountability with nothing. This goes back to Hobbes– it’s life is nasty, brutish and short and the state of nature is not a fun thing – and Aristotle – man is a political animal, we come together because if we don’t come together, there’s going to be chaos and it’s going to be nuts.
So at the opening salvo of the French Revolution is that everyone is equal and it realizes very quickly that that’s not going to work. I think that’s true of most of the world’s democracies, and it is really the tension within world democracy because the principles of the Enlightenment were this idea of, you know, you have rights and freedoms as a human being by virtue of being a human being and that got married to nationalism as it arose.
They were almost two separate ideas. You had liberalism, sort of classically defined, and you had nationalism. And they came together, and they made the nation-state. That was what the marriage of those two things looked like. And they want to be able to have their cake, which is everybody is free by virtue of being a person, and yet they want to eat it too because they want everybody to have their own nation and their own right to their own nation.
That sounds perfectly wonderful in principle, but in practice it gets a little bit difficult, right? Because if you’re going to accept that hook, line and sinker, then Catalonia should have a nation if they want a nation. And Scotland should have a nation if they want a nation. And what do you do if you have two nations, let’s say Israel and Palestine, who claim the same land and can create, you know, claims that maybe one side won’t respect the other side’s claims, but let’s say both can present some kind of historical basis for their claim to a certain part of land, and it’s the same land.
What are you going to do? Are you going to divide the land up? What does your men are born and remain free and equal rights tell you to do when two different men claim the same land and that’s sort of what Article 3 does, right? It says that, ok, sure we’re all equal but the nation-state exists to protect that freedom and the nation-state means you give up some of your sovereignty to the nation-state because the nation-state is going to protect those freedoms for you within a defined limit.
It’s Churchill who said, I forget exactly what the quote is, but he’s talking about democracy and it’s the worst form of government except all the others. You know, liberal democracy is sort of like that – it’s not perfect. It has all of these inner tensions, but I think the danger comes in anybody who thinks that it’s only about the nation. And then I think there’s also an equal danger in anybody that thinks it is only about the principle because if you are a radical in either direction and if you can’t split the difference, you’re not living within the liberal democracy because the liberal democracy is a compromise between two ideas that together on the surface don’t exactly fit.
XS: So I think what ties it all together for me is the idea that ideology does not really by itself drive major world events. It certainly, as an idea, spurs men and women to action, but the idea that there are power imbalances and circumstances, political realities that shape those ideologies. At the same time that there’s an interplay between them both, I think is fundamental to how we look at the world. We try to understand the reality of the situation in addition to what people are saying.
JLS: Yeah I think that’s exactly right and I hope that as we get into the second round of French elections – it’s sort of the year of elections, right? We’re going to have British elections this year, we’re going to have German elections this year, who knows what other stuff is going to pop up. I hope that – and I am sure we will be talking about these in some depth as we go both in terms of our writing and also on the podcast, but I think one thing as people think about these elections, if you want to think about things through the way we’re thinking about them, just listen to what Xander just said.
I mean it’s not really about the election. The election tells you that something important is happening, and it gives you some data points to explore for what’s important that’s happening, but it’s not the election and the selection of the person itself. It’s not about Merkel, it’s not about Le Pen, it’s not about Theresa May any more than it was really about Hitler or Stalin or Roosevelt. Those were all people who met the challenges of their time and were defined by the challenges that they faced not by their personal opinions on what they needed to happen.
The same will happen in the 21st century, so the only way I think it’s fair to make a comparison between those two time periods right now at least as I see it is to talk about how the leaders then and the leaders now are not free actors. They are constrained and defined by the things that exist around them, and they are expressions of things underneath them. They’re not shaping history themselves, they are as much a part of being shaped by it as all of us have been shaped by it.
So I think we’ll wrap up there. So Xander this was fun. We should do this again. This was a long one and I hope people enjoy it, but if people think it’s too long or if you have questions that we didn’t answer, if you have suggestions for any other topics, you can just write in to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also just visit us at geopoliticalfutures.com to read our stuff, and we’ll see you out there next week.