Neo nationalism: Will the French follow the Americans and the Brits?

It can mean a new beginning for the world – for better or for worse

The US Presidential Election in November has safely installed at the White House perhaps the most controversial candidate ever. He goes there, not empty handed, but with a promise to make America great again. Some pundits are interpreting it as the beginning of the fall of globalisation. It can lead to a world that gives priority to protectionism over free-trade – a 180 degree turn from its current path.

On the other side of the Atlantic, France is getting ready for its own Presidential Election, scheduled for May 2017. Marine Le Pen from the National Front was the first to announce candidacy. She has consistently maintained high popularity in polling figures and is predicted to gather between 28% and 30% in the first round, which is close to the figures predicted for possible Republican candidate François Fillon. Many political analysts notice her strong position even in the absence of a primary in her party. She starts her campaign in February 2017, following the Republican and Socialist primaries. Her rare media appearances attract consistent audiences. She has a long way to go, but is a serious contender. Her trump card, again: Nationalism.

The American and French presidential elections, taken together with Brexit – The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, which took place following a referendum in June 2016 – paints a gloomy picture for free-market lovers. All three events, it appears, signify a shift away from global markets, carefully built, brick by brick over decades with strong international cooperation. It is scary. The pundits could be correct after all.

A word of caution, though. Popular thinking is not necessarily reflected in an election. The US Presidential Election is one of the trickiest. The winner, unlike in the case of Sri Lanka, need not receive the maximum number of votes. It is a game of electoral colleges. The party that scores the highest number of votes in a state elects all its representatives, whom in turn elect the president. The popular vote, on the other hand, can be in favor of any candidate. In 2000, George W. Bush got 50.4 million votes to become the president, beating Al Gore who got half a million more votes! It is a strange system. So depending too much on election results to predict a political trend can be misleading.

There is less reason to fear a world war now. We live in a society where checks and balances of internal political mechanisms shun adventurism

The results of the 2016 US Presidential Election could be even more bizarre to interpret. Only 53% of eligible voters actually exercised their right. This is not unusual – about half of Americans never vote – but it’s the lowest percentage in the last five presidential elections. The one that came closest was in 2000, when 54.2% voted. Hillary Clinton grabbed the popular vote, with 64.4 million people backing her. Trump’s share was only 62.3 million. While this is the highest Republican popular vote compared to elections since 2000, it per se wasn’t a victory. The US population has increased from roughly 279 million in 2000 to 325 million in 2016 in a linear fashion. Four years ago, when it was 314 million, Romney got nearly 61 million. In other words, for population growth of 3.5%, Trump only recorded a 2.1% growth in votes. Historical records show clearly that Trump received nothing but the traditional Republican block vote; Clinton lost on her own weakness. (According to the latest numbers, she lost about 2 million of those who voted Obama in 2012.) So interpreting it as a victory of American Nationalism should be taken only with a pinch of salt.

Still, we shouldn’t deny the change. Maybe it’s not the beginning, but a trend visible. It deserves a more comprehensive look. Nationalism is a slippery concept with multiple meanings. During the French Revolution, the masses used it to differentiate themselves from the monarch: Nationalists versus the King. The word became eventually meaningless when Louis XVI dressed himself and his family in the French tri colors (blue, white and red) to declare “I am a Nationalist!”.

Nationalism also stands for the desire for national advancement or political independence. Both Gandhi and Mandela called themselves nationalists. So did all ‘freedom fighters’ who struggled against ‘colonialists’ in Asian, African and Latin American nations. The new-nationalism, if one were to call it this, is different. It is more the policy or doctrine of asserting the interests of one’s own nation viewed as separate from the interests of other nations or the common interest of all nations. In that sense, it takes us back to age old protectionism. For the first time since World War II, this has taken many emerging powers towards different kinds of chauvinism. Like Trump, leaders in Russia, China and Turkey have a pessimistic outlook that diplomacy is often a zero-sum game where global interests compete with national goals. Brits, who decided to divorce the European Union, maintain a similar view. According to a recent article in The Economist, ethnic nationalism is demonstrating its power in all these places. In Russia, President Putin has given priority to Russian tradition and Orthodox Christianity over international liberal values. In Turkey, Erdogan approved Islamist nationalism rather than peace negotiations with the European Union and the Kurdish minority.

Meanwhile, in China, nationalism has become so powerful, the state struggles to control it. Chinese children since the 1990s are receiving a ‘patriotic’ daily dose of education at school. While the middle kingdom heavily depends on open markets, Chinese have also commenced dividing their society. Now, in order to be a ‘true Chinese’, one must be a descender of Han tradition. Everyone else is considered a second-class citizen.

The question is ,where will all this lead to? What will happen when countries embrace more nationalism?

Nobody knows the answers, as never before has the world moved in this path for long. Seven decades ago, such experiments – in Italy, Germany and Japan – triggered a world war. This is because, in a model where a nation sees itself as superior to others, there is a logical tendency to rule the ‘uncivilised’. That was the pretense on which Mussolini and Hitler, before them perhaps even Napoleon, attempted conquering Europe. Those experiments failed.

There is less reason to fear a world war now. We live in a society where checks and balances of internal political mechanisms shun adventurism. No leader today, no matter how powerful, can take a country to war that easily. Also, we have the United Nations, an organization that, though not perfect, can de-escalate international disputes before they get out of hand. So there cannot be a repetition of history. Perhaps we face an end we have never seen before and we know nothing about. There is no other option but to wait.