I spend roughly 40 per cent of my time in Asia, 44 per cent in Europe and the remainder in diverse parts of the world. When in Asia, I am conscious of how Europe seems remote and increasingly irrelevant, certainly when judging from the media. I was in and out of Asia during the months running up to the French presidential election; there was very little coverage. Having said that I also found very little coverage in Europe of the Hong Kong election for Chief Executive. In March I wrote an article, “French Presidential Elections: Perspectives from Greater China”, in which I argued that in fact from a global and future perspective the Hong Kong election could be deemed more significant than the French – in the sense of the impact it might have on the evolution of governance in the People’s Republic itself.
Now that the election in France has happened, there clearly is some significance. While France, like Europe generally, is in relative decline, it does remain at the moment the world’s fifth- biggest economy, also the world’s fifth-biggest exporting nation, and, on the geopolitical front, it possesses nuclear weapons and has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. So political change in France matters for the world. The fact that France now has for the first time in seventeen years a socialist president – and for only the second time in the history of the Fifth Republic (founded in 1958) – obviously matters also.
The former socialist president (1981-1995), François Mitterrand, initially embarked on a hard left economic programme (with serial nationalisations of industry) and made his first overseas trip to Pyongyang! After disaster hit the economy in 1983-84, he rapidly backtracked on economic policy and also abandoned his foreign policy based on global communist solidarity. With the appointment of his finance minister, Jacques Delors, to the Presidency of the European Commission and the development of a close working (and personal) relationship with the centre-right German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand in fact became a pragmatic and determined architect of a reinvigorated Europe, illustrated in the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht that established the European Union.
Thus while the candidate François Hollande has committed to taxing the wealthy, having declared both that he does not like the rich and that the enemy is the world of finance, also of quite significantly increasing the number of teachers, and that he would dismantle the austerity programme, in fact in all likelihood President Hollande will in due course toe the pragmatic line. The fact that Hollande is a socialist is not that important in the context of global and future implications.
What is significant about this election generally, ie, not just the ultimate outcome, is how all candidates – there were initially ten, whittled down to two (Sarkozy and Hollande) after the “first round” – were strongly anti-globalisation and espousing protectionism. France, it must be said, has always tended to have a visceral protectionist streak; but on this occasion it was especially pronounced. Sarkozy, theoretically the candidate representing business, invested much of his campaign with the need for protectionism both from the flow of goods and the flow of people. He kept insisting on how the notion of frontiers had to become central to France’s policy agenda. Of course there was an element of political calculation – the hope of securing the votes of the millions who voted for the extreme right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen – but it clearly also struck a deep vein in the French public. Again, it must be emphasised, all candidates struck a strong anti-globalisation protectionist chord, while the candidates also expressed various degrees of Euro-phobia; roughly 30 per cent of the French voted in the first round for candidates who would take France out of the Euro and some out the European Union altogether.
While the French election obviously has certain Gallic characteristics, it is also a reflection of a broader and deeper European malaise. The siren of extremism has been sounded in countries as diverse as Finland and Greece, the Netherlands and Italy. The crisis in the eurozone, the recessions in a number of EU countries, the impact of austerity measures, the rapid rise in unemployment – especially youth unemployment, fifty-two percent in Spain – and the general sense of anxiety about the future account for a Europe that is becoming increasingly inward-looking. At a time when the planet is facing such a multiplicity of quite major challenges, this is worrying. The world needs a Europe that remains committed to an open and sustainable global market economy. France, as noted, is still the world’s fifth-biggest economy, while the EU is also still the world’s biggest market. A precipitate collapse of Europe would have deleterious effects on the world generally and indeed emphatically so among the exporting nations of Asia.
Europe’s relative decline is occurring simultaneously with Asia’s relative rise. To ensure that the transition occurs smoothly and that the decline of Europe does not become globally destructive, Asia needs to play a more active and especially constructive role in global governance. That is the major lesson to be drawn from the French presidential election and one I shall address in greater detail in a future publication.