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Politics & Government

French Presidential Election Serves As Test Of Liberal Democracy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As we just heard, France will have a clear choice in another couple of weeks between two outsiders, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Yascha Mounk watches European politics closely. He's a lecturer at Harvard, and he joins us now for a closer look at what this election says about the state of democracy. Welcome.

YASCHA MOUNK: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think French voters rejected the more mainstream political parties in this election?

MOUNK: They've been slowly rebelling against the French political mainstream for a long time. When Jacques Chirac left office, he was the least popular French president in history. Five years later when his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, left office, he was the least popular president in French history. And now Francois Hollande has beaten all other records again.

SHAPIRO: For unpopularity.

MOUNK: Yes. There's a lot of economic stagnation in France. Twenty-five percent of young people are unemployed. The country is still slowly trying to transition from a sort of mono-ethnic, monocultural conception of who a Frenchman is to a multi-ethnic society in which they have to accept immigrants as true compatriots. And both of those processes are causing a lot of angst and anger.

SHAPIRO: These themes seem to extend beyond France, though. You had Britain vote for Brexit. Donald Trump won the American election. Even in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led a nationalist movement. Why do you think this is happening all over the world right now?

MOUNK: That's right. That's a really striking thing. And to understand this particular moment, to understand why we have this sort of populist moment that's in danger of turning into a populist age, you have to look beyond one country. You can't just say, well, in the States, there's a lot of partisanship, and that explains it because in countries like Germany, you don't have partisanship, and yet you see the rise of populists as well.

So I agree. I think it is these factors. All through the history of democratic stability, you've seen this very rapid increase in living standards from one generation to the next, and that's no longer the case. Nearly every democracy in the world has been founded as a mono-ethnic, monocultural country with a clear racial hierarchy even insofar as people from outside the nation were tolerated there all.

And now you see slowly countries coming to grapple with the idea of what it means to live alongside people of different religions, different ethnicities, different cultural customs. And that's a really difficult and tough process that a lot of countries are rebelling against.

SHAPIRO: You write in Slate today that the battles of the future will not be fought between leftists and rightists or liberals and conservatives. Rather, you say they will pit the advocates of an open society against the partisans of a closed society and nationalists. Explain what that re-alignment looks like.

MOUNK: You know, whether you're a Democrat or you're a Republican, whether you in France are for the Parti Socialiste or the UMP or Les Republicains would have been decided by your stance on straightforward economic issues. If you want a slightly bigger welfare state, a little bit more redistribution, then you're on the center-left. If you want, you know, more free enterprise and a smaller welfare state, lower taxes, then you're on the center-right.

Now I think there's really coming to be this quite fundamental clash which is nicely encapsulated by Emmanuel Macron on the one side and Marine Le Pen on the other side, between people who believe that globalization is an opportunity but we need international cooperation in order to solve problems like climate change, that we should be open to the world. And people say no, the most important thing is the nation, and that stands in competition with international organizations. It has to close itself off against the world in order to have real power. It has to embrace an ethnic, cultural majority against others. And so this is what you're seeing now.

I'm a little torn about this because if a main political cleavage is between essentially defenders of liberal democracy in the current world order and ones who really want to dismantle it radically, then eventually they will sometimes win elections, and we will get real moments of turmoil like we're seeing now in the United States.

SHAPIRO: Yascha Mounk is host of the podcast "The Good Fight," and he's a columnist for Slate. Thanks so much.

MOUNK: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.