In the wake of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and a related attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, it's natural to turn attention to Marine Le Pen and her National Front political party, which was a huge winner in last year's European Parliament elections and whose anti-immigration and anti-Muslim agenda seems perfectly positioned to capitalize on the backlash. Over the weekend, I took the time to read her party's document "Notre Project: Programme politique du Front National."
What you find is a mixed bag. There's some nuttiness and extremism in there, some banal stuff, and some unlikely-to-work populism. But there are also some excellent points about the fundamental architecture of European economic policy. Points that Europe's mainstream leaders have spent years avoiding, even as they've tried harder and harder to cope with the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and political movements. The focus on what's abhorrent about the Front and similar parties is understandable and important. But at some point, European leaders have to face up to the fact that it's not all nuttiness and racism. Voters are turning to extreme parties because the mainstream parties have blundered into a years-long economic fiasco and they have no plan to end it.
Far-right is an oversimplification
The National Front is typically short-handed as a "far-right" political party. This is fine as far as it goes. The party's founder — Marine Le Pen's still-living father — was a fascist street-brawler as a youth, managed Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour's Vichyite presidential campaign in 1965, and traffics in not-at-all-disguised racism.
In its current incarnation, the Front advances a genuinely extreme view on immigration (a 95 percent reduction in legal immigration levels), promotes anti-Muslim politics under the guise of secularism, and clearly practices dog whistle politics intended to appeal to a racist constituency (hardly a unique tactic).
In other respects, though, the party is not so extreme. They want to hike military spending (to 2 percent of GDP, leaving it below US levels and actually just reaching the threshold all NATO members are theoretically supposed to attain), build more prisons, discourage abortion, ban same-sex marriages, and ban affirmative action — fairly standard conservative ideas in the US.
On finance, Le Pen sounds like Elizabeth Warren, calling for a separation of investment and commercial banking (Glass-Steagall rules, in US terms) and a financial transactions tax. They bemoan the privatization of public services.
On the welfare state, they chart a third way. The (dubious) central premise seems to be that once you massively curtail legal and illegal immigration alike, affordability questions go out the window. Mothers of three or more children will secure earlier access to full social security benefits, family allowances will be raised, and more preschool funding provided. They claim (again, dubiously) that protectionist tariff policy will promote the re-industrialization of France.
A correct critique of Europe
But beyond this ideological grab-bag is a thoroughgoing and persuasive critique of European monetary arrangements (they also have a persuasive critique of the EU's deeply misguided directive on passenger railroad regulation). They cite Milton Friedman as an authority on the idea that the Eurozone is not an optimal currency area, and this is in fact the professional consensus. They rightly say that the inability of Eurozone member states to conduct independent monetary policy "condemns the people to austerity plans that do nothing but exacerbate the crisis." They say that "France should prepare, with its European partners, a return to national currencies that will permit a return to competitive devaluations" and this would, indeed, be a boon to the French (and Spanish and Italian and Belgian, etc.) economies.
Most radically in political terms — although really not so controversially in terms of macroeconomics — they call for the Bank of France to print money to cover French budget deficits. That's a step that could be dangerous in many scenarios, but given that France is currently experience negative inflation it seems well worth trying.
A challenge that deserves an answer
There's much to dislike in the National Front's policy gestalt. The mix of populist conservative nationalism on social policy and protectionist trade policy is politically plausible, but indefensible on the merits. The draconian immigration restrictionism at the core of the party's identity is inhumane and substantively ridiculous.
But the Europe stuff deserves an answer. LePen's view that the currency union can simply be undone amicably is rather utopian. But it's at least an idea. Europe is currently mired in a depression whose initial cause was the single currency, and mainstream European leaders have no solutions to offer. The Eurozone is fundamentally a political project rather than an economic one, but to succeed politically it needs to work economically. Right now it isn't, and Le Pen's brand of populist nationalism is a logical alternative. After all, the idea that France should have its own currency just the way Canada and Switzerland and Singapore do rather than trying to share one with Portugal and Finland isn't really all that radical.
So far, European leaders have mostly tried to answer the rise of the far-right's toxic immigration politics by talking immigration. Either with criticisms of xenophobia, cooptation of anti-immigrant politics, or both. But it's no secret that anti-immigrant views rise during times of economic distress — economic distress whose root cause is bungling in Brussels and Frankfurt, not anything to do with immigrants. Le Pen deserves to be confronted where she's making the most sense, not the least. Mainstream leaders need to either co-opt her European agenda, or else construct a viable alternative in which the European Central Bank creates growth-friendly conditions without disrupting the single currency.