The French are too intellectually vain to borrow others' political ideas, but too interested in style not to appreciate and appropriate that of others. So, on May 7 they might confer their presidency on a Gallic Barack Obama.
In 2008, Obama, a freshman senator, became a national Rorschach test, upon whom Americans projected their longings. Emmanuel Macron, 39, is a former Paris investment banker, untainted by electoral experience, and a virtuoso of vagueness. His platform resembles (The Spectator's Jonathan Miller's description) "a box of chocolates from one of those upscale confiseries on the Rue Jacob: full of soft centers." This self-styled centrist is a former minister for the incumbent president, socialist Francois Hollande, who in a recent poll enjoyed 4 percent approval. (Last Sunday, the Socialist Party candidate won 6.35 percent of the vote.) Macron calls his movement En Marche!, meaning "on the move," which is as self-congratulatory and uninformative as Obama's "We are the ones we've been waiting for." Macron proposes to cure France's durable stagnation by being ever so nice. Which means, above all, by not being ... her.
In 1984, when Marine Le Pen's anti-Semitic and xenophobic father, Jean-Marie, received more than 2 million votes for president, a Paris headline asked: "Are there 2,182,248 Fascists in France?" It was not an unreasonable question, he having advocated uniting all "the forces of the nation in a fasces." He was pointedly invoking the Roman symbol of power -- rods lashed together around an ax handle with the blade protruding -- from which fascism took its name. His slogan was cunningly sinister: "My program is what you are thinking." Meaning: What you flinch from saying about Jews, immigrants and other deplorables.
It is unclear how far from this tree the sour apple that is his daughter has fallen. Her rallies feature chants of "On est chez nous" ("This is our home"), which expresses anxiety that France is less and less that. Millions of unassimilated immigrants have made a mockery of the dreamy multiculturalism preached by people living comfortably insulated from the influx. Le Pen's blood-and-soil nationalism is a primal scream against the felt dilution of identity.
It is untrue that French libraries file the nation's constitutions under periodicals. There have been a slew of them since 1791; the current one is a relatively ancient 59 years old. But a nation's identity is usually bound up with linguistic unity, so France's national identity is, in a sense, relatively young. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama has written: "In the 1860s, a quarter of France's population could not speak French, and another quarter spoke it only as a second language. French was the language of Paris and the educated elite; in rural France, peasants spoke Breton, Picard, Flemish, Provencal, or any number of other local dialects." Marine Le Pen, self-styled avatar of Frenchness, got less than 5 percent of the vote in Paris, running strongest where national identity has been most recently realized.
In 1977, France's GDP was about 60 percent larger than Britain's; today it is smaller than Britain's. In the interval, Britain had Margaret Thatcher, and France resisted (see above: keeping foreigners' ideas at bay) "neoliberalism." It would mean dismantling the heavy-handed state direction of the economy known as "dirigisme," which is French for sclerosis. France's unemployment rate is 10 percent, and more than twice that for the young.
Public-sector spending is more than 56 percent of France's GDP, higher than any other European nation's. Macron promises only to nibble at statism's ragged edges. He will not receive what he is not seeking -- a specific mandate to challenge retirement at age 62, or the 35-hour workweek and the rest of France's 3,500 pages of labor regulations that make it an ordeal to fire a worker and thus make businesses wary about hiring. Instead, he wants a more muscular European Union, which, with its democracy deficit, embodies regulatory arrogance.
The 1930s confounded the European left because capitalism's crisis benefited the rancid right, which by melding economic and cultural anxieties produced aspirations from the base metal of resentments. Today, globalization is causing similar stirrings on both sides of the Atlantic. Le Pen's surge probably will crest short of floating her into the presidency. But in France and elsewhere, complacent people should remember the words of the African-American spiritual with which James Baldwin in 1963 warned Americans during the struggle for civil rights:
G0D gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, the fire next time.