As France heads into the second and final round of its presidential election on Sunday, a number of observers have compared the choice between the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist neoliberal Emmanuel Macron with the Trump-Clinton contest of 2016. There are similarities: Le Pen, who is politely called xenophobic, like Trump represents an anti-immigrant, right-wing nationalism combined with some populist appeals. Macron, a former investment banker, was economy minister under the current Socialist government who, like Clinton, is widely seen as too close to powerful financial interests.
But one significant difference is that if Clinton had won the US presidency last year, she would most likely have tried to win some net improvements in the living standards and economic security of the majority of the electorate—including working-class and poor people—who voted for her. The same cannot be said for Macron in France. His public platform has been vague, but insofar as it has a discernible trend, it is the same as the direction the country has moved over most of the past decade. That has included large public-pension cuts, labor-law reform that has weakened the bargaining power of unions and made it easier for employers to dismiss workers (including the “Macron Law,” as it is called, of 2015), and spending cuts.
How does France, a country with an advanced welfare state that provides nearly free university tuition, universal health care, and free child care, end up with less of a choice than what Americans faced last year? (And don’t get me wrong: I think it’s still an important choice to make, given the special dangers that Le Pen, like Trump, represents.)
The short answer is that there is a structural problem in the eurozone, and the EU. The European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund (which is not an independent entity but generally answers to its European directors for decisions affecting Europe) are the European authorities that have increasingly constrained the economic decision-making of European governments. We can also include the Eurogroup of finance ministers, which has tormented poor Greece and helped prolong that country’s interminable economic crisis.
These people have shown that they are committed to creating a different kind of Europe. This can be seen in a paper trail of thousands of pages of documents, called Article IV consultations, in which the IMF and EU government finance ministries hammer out their views on economic policy. These documents represent an elite consensus that can differ greatly from public opinion within the countries. A review of 67 of these agreements for the four years from 2008 through 2011, for 27 EU countries, showed a clear pattern of policy choices: cutting government spending, including on health care and pensions; increasing labor supply; reducing public-sector employment; and changes in labor law that would reduce the scope of collective bargaining.