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Paul Krugman: France’s far right is bad. But not as hypocritical as MAGA.

Paul Krugman New York Times

France held the first of two rounds of parliamentary elections Sunday, and its “far right” party won big. I put that in quotes because right-wing parties in Europe can differ from the American far right – the immigrant-scapegoating ethnonationalism is just as ugly, but the economic policies are less hypocritical. I’ll get to that shortly.

Before I go there, however, what are the implications of the strong showing by the National Rally (or RN, for Rassemblement National) party? As I understand it, it’s still unclear whether the RN will gain a majority of seats and if it will be able to form a government, and in general very unclear how France will function given the diminishment of Emmanuel Macron, who will still be president. I’ll leave speculations about such matters to people who are actual experts on French politics – not, I suspect, that they know, either.

Instead, let me be a typical American and explore what events in France may portend for the United States.

The first thing to say is that the French election results probably have less to do with ideology than you may think. French voters, like voters across the wealthy world, are in a sour mood and directing their ire against the politicians currently in power, be they on the right, the left or the center. Britain, for example, will be holding its own election Thursday, and unless the polls are way off, the Conservative Party, which has ruled the nation for 14 years, is headed for an even more crushing defeat than Macron’s centrists.

Why are voters so angry? That’s not an easy question to answer. By the usual measures, Macron has been a fairly successful manager of the economy. France’s unemployment rate has fallen significantly on his watch, while the employment rate for prime-age adults has surged.

Like almost every other wealthy nation, France experienced a burst of inflation as the world economy recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic – in fact, if you use comparable measures, prices in France have risen by roughly the same amount as prices in the United States. But also as in America, inflation has declined rapidly without a jump in unemployment, and the current state of the economy looks quite good by historical standards.

An aside: The most recent U.S. inflation numbers were overshadowed by last Thursday’s presidential debate, but the news was really good: At 2.6% year over year, inflation is only marginally above the Federal Reserve’s 2% target. The blip in measured inflation earlier this year now looks like statistical noise, and there’s a good case for arguing that inflation has essentially been defeated, and that the Fed should start cutting interest rates.

Back to France. The French economy looks pretty good, yet French people aren’t feeling it, or at least tell pollsters that they aren’t feeling it; the numbers may be fine but the vibes are bad. Despite high employment and fairly low inflation, household economic confidence is far below its historical average. If this reminds you of the situation in our country, it should; the similarities are almost eerie.

That said, French workers have some reasons to feel disgruntled. Macron has attempted to be a good technocrat, raising France’s low retirement age in the name of fiscal responsibility. He tried to reduce carbon emissions by raising fuel taxes, setting off widespread protests, while ending a wealth tax that, he argued, was hurting the French economy – a move that led many to call him the “president of the rich.”

And on economic policy the RN has basically campaigned against Macron from the left. It has promised to lower the retirement age for many workers while cutting the value-added tax – basically a sales tax – on energy. How would it pay for these measures? By cutting benefits to immigrants.

In case you’re wondering: No, the numbers don’t work. But setting math aside, the RN has, in effect, staked out a position in favor of big government and generous social benefits, but essentially only for people with the right ethnic background.

The contrast with Trumpism should be obvious.

MAGA shares the French right’s hostility to immigrants and general xenophobia. But Donald Trump, far more than Macron, really was a president of the rich, cutting taxes on corporations and the affluent while attempting unsuccessfully to slash health benefits for millions.

And if Trump is returned to office, there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t do even more to benefit the rich at the expense of average Americans. Notably, he has floated the idea of replacing income taxes with tariffs – that is, taxes on imports. As with the RN’s ideas, the math wouldn’t work; but any attempt along these lines would cause big price increases for the great majority of American workers while delivering big income gains to the 1%.

This is why I’ve spent years arguing that we shouldn’t call Trump a populist. Yes, he caters to some popular prejudices. But his economic ideas are all about making workers worse off while further enriching America’s oligarchs.

So yes, the French right is bad, and its rise is alarming. But the MAGA movement is worse, because it combines the European right’s ugliness with stunning hypocrisy and contempt for its supporters.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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