The Angry People

SYNOPSIS: Krugman comments on the second-place finish of a neo-Nazi in France's presidential election

A slightly left-of-center candidate runs for president. In a rational world he would win easily. After all, his party has been running the country, with great success: unemployment is down, economic growth has accelerated, the sense of malaise that prevailed under the previous administration has evaporated.

But everything goes wrong. His moderation becomes a liability; denouncing the candidate's pro-market stance, left-wing candidates who have no chance of winning, but are engaged in politics as theater draw off crucial support. The candidate, though by every indication a very good human being, is not a natural campaigner; he has, say critics, "a professorial style" that seems "condescending and humorless" to many voters. Above all, there is apathy and complacency among moderates; they take it for granted that he will win, or that in any case the election will make little difference.

The result is a stunning victory for the hard right. It's by and large a tolerant, open-minded country; but there is a hard core, maybe 20 percent of the electorate, that is deeply angry even in good times. And owing to the peculiarities of the electoral system, this right-wing minority prevails even though more people actually cast their votes for the moderate left.

If all this sounds like a post-mortem on the Gore campaign in 2000, that's intentional. But I'm actually describing Sunday's shocking election in France, in which the current prime minister, Lionel Jospin, placed third, behind the rabid rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Until very recently, Mr. Le Pen was regarded as a spent force. Now he has scored an astonishing triumph.

As I've implicitly suggested, there are some important parallels between the earthquake in French politics and recent political events in the United States. Let me draw out those parallels, then go to the big difference.

What the French election revealed is that in France, as in the United States, there are a lot of angry people. They aren't a majority; Mr. Le Pen received about 17 percent of the vote, less than Ross Perot got here in 1992. But they are highly motivated, and can exert influence out of proportion to their numbers if moderates take a tolerant society for granted.

What are the angry people angry about? Not economics; peace and prosperity did not reconcile them to Bill Clinton or to Mr. Jospin. Instead, it seems to be about traditional values. Our angry right rails against godless liberals; France's targets immigrants. In both cases, what really seems to bother them is the loss of certainty; they want to return to a simpler time, one without that disturbing modern mix of people and ideas.

And in both cases this angry minority has had far more influence than its numbers would suggest, largely because of the fecklessness of the left and the apathy of moderates. Al Gore had Ralph Nader; Mr. Jospin had a potpourri of silly leftists (two Trotskyists took 10 percent of the vote). And both men were mocked and neglected by complacent moderates.

Now for the important difference. Mr. Le Pen is a political outsider; his showing in Sunday's election puts him into the second-round runoff, but he won't actually become France's president. So his hard-right ideas won't be put into practice anytime soon.

In the United States, by contrast, the hard right has essentially been co-opted by the Republican Party or maybe it's the other way around. In this country people with views that are, in their way, as extreme as Mr. Le Pen's are in a position to put those views into practice.

Consider, for example, the case of Representative Tom DeLay. Last week Mr. DeLay told a group that he was on a mission from God to promote a "biblical worldview," and that he had pursued the impeachment of Bill Clinton in part because Mr. Clinton held "the wrong worldview." Well, there are strange politicians everywhere. But Mr. DeLay is the House majority whip and, in the view of most observers, the real power behind Speaker Dennis Hastert.

And then there's John Ashcroft.

What France's election revealed is that we and the French have more in common than either country would like to admit. There as here, there turns out to be a lot of irrational anger lurking just below the surface of politics as usual. The difference is that here the angry people are already running the country.

Originally published in The New York Times, 4.23.02