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Why “Liberal” Is an Insult in France
European Straits #15
Emmanuel Macron is moving towards a probable victory in next Sunday’s presidential election. This will most likely happen despite a few setbacks and serious reluctance from voters on all sides.
In particular, left-wing voters are prone to denouncing Emmanuel’s proximity with the business world and depicting him as a “liberal”. The term as we use it is difficult to convey in English: a synonym of “economically conservative” (lowering taxes, slashing public spending, weakening unions…), it’s typically an insult in the French political conversation. We like our state to intervene in the economy :-)
Yet like Emmanuel, I am in favor of rehabilitating the term “liberalism” around the principles enunciated by John Locke several centuries ago: “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.” To French voters, liberalism has come to embody the power of finance and the evils associated with globalization. Yet at its core, it is about affirming individual autonomy, with institutions designed to enhance that autonomy instead of constraining it: that is the topic of my new book 'HEDGE'.
To be fair, “liberalism” has had different meanings over the last two centuries. In the 19th century, being a liberal meant keeping the state from intervening too much in our daily lives. Then in the 20th century, liberals realized that state intervention was needed to counter market volatility and encourage individual autonomy. This opened a new age of "embedded liberalism", with the state turning from being an adversary to being an ally of individual autonomy. (This is key to understanding why “liberal” is still synonymous with “left-wing” in the US.) Finally, in the 1970s liberalism switched to the right again as embedded liberalism was unable to contain the economic crisis of the time. For some, the state appeared to have turned back into a nuisance, and “neoliberalism” became all about scaling back state intervention rather than expanding it.
Why are the French so illiberal? One reason is that, like in most European countries, part of our conservative right wing is afraid of the popular vote and wants to limit its influence. And part of our left wing is Marxist as a result of polarization against the anti-democratic right: most of its history has been about defending the interests of the workers without counting too much on the democratic process. As a result, the typical European political landscape is divided into four segments: the conservative Tories, with their nostalgia for the Ancien Régime; the bourgeois liberals advocating classical liberalism; the progressive liberals, who are closer to the left; and the Marxists. This dispersion prevents a national consensus around liberalism.
Social democracy, a uniquely European synthesis, is the result of bringing together the left-wing Marxists and center-left liberals, thus forming a political bloc with an actual shot at winning the majority. My view is that this coalition could hold as long as the state and the trade unions were powerful, but now it can only explode in a more globalized economy where the state is weak and trade unions are a shadow of their former selves. We’re witnessing this with the spectacular fall of the SPD in Germany, Labour in the United Kingdom, and the Socialist Party in France.
One other reason for our national illiberalism is specifically French. As my friend Anne-Sophie Letac, a professor of history, argued in a conversation on Facebook, France inherited from its monarchy a centralized political power and a tradition of state intervention in the economy (a practice known as 'Colbertism'). After the crown was demolished by the Revolution, the country went on to be led by a revolutionary general, Bonaparte, who consolidated the hyper-centralized state in order to preserve the legacy of the Revolution (which without Napoleon, as suggested by Anne-Sophie, would “remain in history as a simple mass murder”).
Hence France’s ambivalent relationship towards liberalism. Unlike in the US, our revolutionary past wasn’t enshrined in a democratic Constitution and a Bill of Rights, but rather it was appropriated by a series of illiberal regimes throughout the 19th century that promoted laissez-faire while repressing individual freedom in the political sphere. As Anne-Sophie concludes, there is in France “a profound dissociation of political liberalism and economic liberalism, and it is the failure to take account of this fact that explains why we are unable to digest globalization.”
In between watching the campaigning, I completed a new chapter in my new book ‘HEDGE’. Here’s an overview and related readings: Do Middle Class Voters Dream of Tech Companies?
Also, I’ve published two more notes about business strategy: