Political Redux: February 14, 2017

by Chris Berger

As of this Valentine’s Day, electorates continue their affairs with populism and ethno-nationalism.  Europe in particular has always had its flirtations with fringe elements in mainstream politics, whereas in North America, institutions like First-Past-The-Post have tended, as a general rule, to keep eccentrics both malicious and benign either out of the political spotlight altogether, or reined in by more moderate forces in big-tent parties.  France is giving us a case study of a fringe party picking up steam, while in Canada, as Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberal government backs away from a campaign promise for electoral reform, we are given occasion to discuss anew the relation between the electoral system and the prospects of fringe undesirables.


With the exception of the United States, the internal politics of foreign countries doesn’t tend to feature prominently in political discussions amongst average Canadians, save for those with a special interest in current events.  But the 2017 French presidential election seems to be an exception, largely thanks to candidate Marine Le Pen.

For those unfamiliar, Le Pen is the leader of the National Front, a far-right, ultra-nationalist party of Eurosceptics, anti-immigrationists, and occasional Holocaust downplayers who have seen a surprising and, for many, alarming surge in popularity in recent years.  In many ways, those involved in this movement remind us, for good reason, of many personalities and policies associated with the Trump administration in the States.

There are other similarities between this French election and the recent American upheaval: the claims of left-leaning frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, that Russia is attempting to sabotage his campaign, for instance.  It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Russian involvement had something to do with Trump’s win and his recent and ongoing actions, making such claims more and more plausible.  But more importantly, this serves as a lesson that we ought to inoculate ourselves against being too easily surprised by anything these days, least of all the electability of those who not long ago would have been considered beyond the pale by most level-headed voters.

The scariest thing about a Le Pen win is just how plausible it is.  A mere two years ago, French novelist Michel Houellebecq published Soumission (translated into English one year later as Submission), a satire in which a French Muslim Brotherhood party wins a run-off election. (Ironically enough, the novel was published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.)  In Houellebecq’s imagined scenario, the Brotherhood forms a coalition with the mainstream right-wing party, the Union for a Popular Movement, and the Socialists in order to pre-empt a victory by Marine Le Pen’s surging National Front, which looks set to win prior to the unlikely alliance.  At the time, readers and critics dismissed a scenario in which the National Front had a chance at winning as fanciful, let alone Houellebecq’s imagined response.  Now, they are likely less sure, and Trump’s win undoubtedly contributes to eroding that confidence.


While often derided as a cranky, misanthropic cynic, Houellebecq was undeniably prescient in his read of the rise in extremist, formerly fringe actors in Western politics.  For this reason, some Canadians may find themselves with much food for thought to chew on in the wake of the Prime Minister’s retreat from electoral reform.

Trudeau himself announced the reason for the backtrack was the increasing influence of extremist factions in politics, and that a proportional system, like that used by democracies in Europe, too easily gives voice to hateful, dangerous elements.  Many of his left-wing critics are crying foul, and are convinced this is just a calculation by a Liberal party that doesn’t see a PR system working in its favour anymore.

The thing is, though: the Prime Minister isn’t wrong.  There are many benefits to a PR system, depending on the context, but it’s by no means the panacea its North American proponents seem to think it is.  It would be hard to argue, in my opinion, that the far-right and neo-fascist parties in Europe these progressives (and in Canada, PR champions and electoral reformers are almost always left-wing) rightly decry could have come to wield such powerful influence if it weren’t for the PR system.  For all the shortcomings of the First-Past-The-Post system, one thing at least can be said in its favour: it tends to drown the crazies in a sea of relative moderation.

This is not to tell the reader one way or the other how they should feel about the Prime Minister’s decision, but it is to insist that matters are not as simple as we might sometimes like.  It’s not a matter of PR=Good, FPTP=Bad.  This is something that bears careful, level-headed consideration going forward.

Illustration courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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