Opinion | After Britain’s zigzag, is France heading towards populist madness?

Opinion | After Britain’s zigzag, is France heading towards populist madness?

Opinion | After Britain’s zigzag, is France heading towards populist madness?

PARIS — The United States, heading toward a second Trump administration, is demonstrating the self-destructive capacity of a great country. France, another great nation, is teetering on a similar precipice ahead of Sunday’s election that could hand control of government to a party with historical pro-Nazi roots and a contemporary agenda that remains nationalist and racist.

But it is Britain that has set the modern model for the self-immolation of an illustrious and ancient democracy, which, by accepting Brexit eight years ago, threw itself into an economic sinkhole from which it still finds it difficult to emerge.

On Thursday, British voters overwhelmingly punished the Conservative Party, which delivered Brexit in 2016. In one of the country’s most lopsided general elections, the Labour Party won more than three times as many seats in Parliament as the Conservatives. After 14 years in opposition, the Labour Party will return to power and install as prime minister its leader, Keir Starmer, whose candidacy made a virtue of the disciplined promise of not making big promises.

The Conservatives richly deserve a long-term exile over the Brexit disaster, which, according to a new report by Cambridge Econometrics, a think tank, would drain almost $400 billion from the British economy by 2035, a considerable sum in a country whose annual output is smaller than that of California.

The landslide victory in Britain was not just about Brexit. After 14 years in power, the Conservatives left so many good reasons to vote against them that it is fair to wonder whether the party, founded in 1834, will survive as a major political force. Under the Tories, the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street in London was occupied by a dyspeptic cultural warrior (Theresa May), who was succeeded by a fustian-wearing braggart (Boris Johnson), who fathered an economic ignoramus (Liz Truss).

Truss, whose tenure lasted seven weeks, was succeeded by the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, whose failed policies failed to reverse the damage done by his predecessors. Amid historic wage stagnation, the average British worker today would be earning about $4,600 more a year if their wage had risen in line with American or German earnings since 2010, according to the Resolution Foundation, a London think tank.

In a rational world, Britain’s malaise would have had a sobering effect on other nations, deterring them from taking reckless risks as Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron did by instigating the Brexit referendum in the first place, confident that it would fail.

But the world is not rational, as President Emmanuel Macron demonstrated last month by calling early elections for France’s National Assembly after his centrist bloc suffered a crushing defeat in European Parliament elections at the hands of the immigrant-bashing populist National Rally party. Like Cameron’s reckless gamble in the Brexit referendum, aimed at silencing Britain First supporters and EU critics in the nativist wing of his party, Macron’s folly was a stunning miscalculation. In both cases, hubris triumphed.

French voters are now in a vengeful mood, ready to vent their anger on Macron, just as Britons did on Thursday against Sunak. Both leaders are seen as elitist champions of the rich. Both countries, the Guardian wrote, are awash in “a wave of discontent against governments led by smartly dressed men in their 40s who are overwhelmingly perceived as toxic and out of touch with reality.”

The crucial difference is that on Thursday angry British voters repudiated populist misrule, while on Sunday angry French voters may well embrace it. If they do, by elevating the National Rally to power they will signal that France has ignored Britain’s ill-fated experiment, motivated in part by similar resentments about immigration and similar dreams of reviving a glittering past.

Like Britain’s Brexit-supporting conservatives, the National Rally is promising to free France from EU rules and their perceived affront to sovereignty. But National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, who once celebrated Brexit as a “victory of freedom” that freed Britain from what she called “serfdom,” is no longer talking about France following suit with a “Frexit,” let alone abandoning the eurozone’s common currency. That’s what she has learned from the Brexit fiasco.

Instead, she and her protégé, Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old wunderkind who would be prime minister if the party wins on Sunday, have promised a France-first agenda that would subvert the EU from within. Their program would undermine an institution central to the peace and prosperity that have prevailed on the continent since World War II — until Vladimir Putin, whom Le Pen openly admired before his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, dragged him back into the bloodshed.

There is no reason to expect that the results of such an isolationist experiment would leave France any happier than Britain has been, but France, like Britain, may be determined to learn that lesson the hard way.