THERE will be no winners in the French presidential election this April. One leading candidate is the unrepentant socialist Francois Hollande, who thinks 75 per cent is an optimal tax rate. The other is Nicolas Sarkozy, who has just managed to nudge himself into the lead with a desperate speech calling for two of the pillars of modern European liberalism – free trade and open borders – to be smashed to pieces. As if to prove that France has no shortage of presidential candidates you’d cross the street to avoid, Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front has now announced that she has enough support to run.
How has this happened? Together, these three frontrunners for head of state are polling an astonishing 71.5 per cent support from the French people, despite policies that are illiberal, impractical and potentially disastrous for France. In 2009, Sarkozy said he wanted the world “to see the victory of the European model”. Today he finds himself cynically grubbing for votes by calling for “buy European” laws and threatening to unilaterally tear up the Schengen agreement, actions at odds with the founding principles of the Europe he was supposed to be celebrating.
The astonishing thing about Francois Hollande is not that he wants to tax France’s rich at an eye-watering rate, nor that while mouthing along to talk of cutting France’s budget deficit he wants to lower the French retirement age to 60 rather than raise it in line with other nations, it is that he is apparently a moderate by the standards of the French left.
There’s certainly little moderate about Marine Le Pen. Sarkozy may have called for immigration to be cut in half, but Le Pen wants it to reach 5 per cent of current levels. And Sarkozy’s new-found enthusiasm for protectionism probably owes something to Le Pen’s earlier declarations that she was “the only candidate for protectionism”.
While Le Pen has been working to decontaminate the image of her party from the days of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, it remains wedded to nation above all, even it seems, over political sense, rejecting the benefits of free trade for an illusory protection.
As Sarkozy shows, the real problem here is that the political centre is shifting in France, and not for the better. The moderate socialist has to call finance his “greatest enemy”, the moderate right-winger sees no option but to inveigh against free trade. Meanwhile the cleaned-up nationalists have just changed their hairstyles enough to look respectable.
France needs a modern equivalent of Frederic Bastiat, whose nineteenth-century essays remain a model of clarity and economic sense. Bastiat famously dismissed socialism as “legal plunder” and warned that “the plans differ, but the planners are all alike”. In his famous argument of the negative railroad, Bastiat pointed out that protectionism simply sacrificed consumer interests to producer interests. Imagine Europe’s free trade zone as an unbroken railroad. Consumers benefit from the low prices as goods travel freely and producers from the larger marketplace. Then protectionists say they want the line to break at the French border, so they can force French consumers to pay more to local producers. But why stop there? If one break is good, more are even better, until we end with a railroad reduced to nothing but breaks in the line. It is an elegant argument, and characteristic of his thought. The slogan “if goods do not cross borders, soldiers will” is often attributed to Bastiat, and certainly it reflects his understanding that hate and violence gather where greed and special interests cause trade to fail.
In 1850, as now, France was caught in a moment of crisis, swayed between the desire for extremism from both sides. Bastiat travelled to Paris to argue for another way: a smaller government with less room for the corruption of special interests, more freedom for individual citizens to use their own money as they felt right, an unbroken railway of trade bringing peace and prosperity to all.
Bastiat lost that fight, but his words live on to haunt France, an awkward reminder that economic and political liberty is not some Anglo Saxon quirk but the most effective and just system that human reason can uncover, humble in its limits and generous in its respect for every person. It took a Frenchman to express many of these ideas better than anyone else ever has, more than a century and a half later. These ideas are as Gallic as they are universal, and that they are without honour today in Bastiat’s own country is a tragedy.
Of course, France’s loss could be Britain’s gain. That would require us to listen to Bastiat ourselves and lower UK tax rates enough to get France’s best and brightest to emigrate.
But here we stand. France’s right wants tighter borders and the poverty and aggression that breeds. France’s left wants to maintain the fiction that everyone can go on living at the expense of everyone else. And no one will take a stand and tell his countrymen that in this election every candidate deserves to lose.
Marc Sidwell is City A.M.’s business features editor.