Why Irish eyes aren’t smiling

Ireland and Canada offer contrasting warnings from the front line of the budget deficit wars.

As he softened up the public for his brutal austerity package, George Osborne contrasted the coalition, steering Britain out of the "financial danger zone", with the wretched condition of our closest neighbour, Ireland. His put-down would probably have resonated with his Anglo-Irish aristocratic ancestors. Heir to the baronetcy of Ballintaylor in Tipperary, the man in charge of the British Exchequer doubtless laments the demise of the old Ascendancy that ruled John Bull's other island for so long.

Yet the reality is that our rookie Chancellor, along with his cheerleaders in the right-wing press, has been swallowing wholesale the dangerous blarney about the benefits of draconian budget cuts that has floated over the Irish Sea from the department of finance in Dublin.

Osborne's obsession with "rebalancing" the books in just five years is scarily similar to that of the Irish finance minister, Brian Lenihan, who is hell-bent on bringing the republic's borrowing level back down from a projected high of 32 per cent of GDP to the EU limit of 3 per cent of GDP by 2014, whatever the consequences.

The proud scion of a post-independence political dynasty, Lenihan has waved aside all objections, inside and outside the Dáil, slamming through a series of slash-and-burn budgets. His measures have merely compounded the bleakest financial crisis since the foundation of the Free State. Things will become even grimmer for Ireland when Britain, still its biggest trading partner, starts to feel the full effects of Osborne's austerity. The Irish might be burning effigies of Lenihan, were he not fighting a life-threatening form of pancreatic cancer. The plain people of Ireland remain impressively compassionate, arguably much more so than their present masters.

The more Lenihan slashes - he is planning another double whammy of spending cuts and tax rises in December (amounting to at least €4.5bn, on top of the €3bn he hacked out last year) - the more he lengthens the nation's dole queues. There are 455,000 Irish citizens (almost 14 per cent of the population) registered as unemployed or underemployed, and the jobless total is heading for the half-million mark, further reducing income tax revenues and VAT receipts. As the republic's beleaguered retail bosses could tell Osborne, consumer spending also nosedives when so many are jobless or fearful of losing their job.

Ireland might be celebrated as a fine exemplar of sound fiscal management, but it demonstrates powerfully the counterargument that a country cannot cut its way out of a re­cession and back to economic growth. Someone who apparently comprehends this is another finance minister who is fiercely proud of his Irish ancestry, Canada's Jim Flaherty.

Osborne has cited Canada as a model for deficit reduction, seeking Flaherty out for advice at the G20 summit in Seoul shortly after the Tories' election triumph. What has impressed advocates of neoliberal economics is the way Canada slashed its national debt from almost 80 per cent of GDP in the mid-1990s - when there were threats of the IMF being called in - to just under 15 per cent in 2007. With Ottawa recording annual budget surpluses at the beginning of the millennium, one supportive think tanker proclaimed this performance the "redemptive decade".

In fact, Flaherty's prime response to the glo­bal economic crash has been to adopt a strikingly Keynesian approach: he authorised a huge increase in federal expenditure in Canada's 2009 budget, and remains committed to deficit spending until the country is safely out of recession. Defending his stimulus plan this summer, he stated: "When you're faced with a country going into a recessionary dive, as we were in the last quarter of 2008, that is not internally generated, that comes from outside the country, what do you do?" He decided "to stimulate the economy with government money, with taxpayers' money, to replace the absence of private demand". It worked, and the IMF is forecasting that Canada's economy will grow 3.1 per cent this year and 2.7 per cent in 2011.

Canada goosed

In contrast to Osborne, Flaherty was no fiscal novice when he stepped into national office. He was finance minister of Canada's most economically powerful province, Ontario, when the treasury in Ottawa embarked on its draconian spending review. He remembers the pain of sharp cuts to education and health, and has said he would have done things differently back then.

Flaherty understands that one important reason the shrinking of his country's public sector was not more catastrophic was that the country's most vital trading partner, the United States, was in the middle of the prolonged, credit-fuelled Clinton boom, which helped to expand the Canadian private sector.

However, it should be emphasised that Flaherty hasn't metamorphosed from tight-fisted free marketeer into big-state spender. On a recent visit to Dublin, he praised Ireland, saying it had led Europe "in taking the necessary, courageous decisions towards fiscal consolidation". Yet, were he to spend more than a couple of days in the ould sod, it is questionable whether he would be as complimentary about his Irish counterpart's "resolve". If he were to witness first-hand the effects of austerity across this small island, as he did in Ontario, Flaherty might believe things should be done differently in Dublin - and London.

Rob Brown is senior lecturer in journalism at Independent Colleges Dublin

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

Getty
Show Hide image

The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.