Macron v. Le Pen, A 200-Year-Old War Over Economic Philosophy

The French election coincides with the bicentennial of British economist David Ricardo's seminal work. Never has it been more relevant.

Coin flip
Coin flip
Jean-Marc Daniel

PARIS — It so happens that the presidential election in France is taking place almost 200 years to the day after the first publication of On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, by the legendary British political economist David Ricardo.

Indeed, it was on April 20, 1817 that the initial 750 copies of the arduous but influential book went on sale. It would be asking too much to summarize the work here. But among the many ideas it contained, one that stands out — and first appeared, actually, in the book's third edition (1821) — is that a country's economic evolution faces two obstacles: The first is the Luddites (as English textiles workers of that era were called), the workers, in other words, who worry about job loss due to mechanization and may be tempted to lash out and break the machines; the second is the landowners, or rent-seekers, who fear that competition, as encouraged and introduced by the public sector, will decrease their earnings.

With regards to rent-seekers, Ricardo was referring to a largely agricultural economy, as was still the case in that period. He advocated lowering rent prices by putting English land and landowners in direct competition with those of France and the United State, through free trade.

But even though his analysis was based on agriculture, a means of production that now plays a relatively small role, the economist's reasoning remains quite relevant today — and is on prime display in the very different economic programs put forth by Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, who face off May 7 in the race to become France's next president.

Competition isn't just something encouraged by political leaders: It's also a product of technological advances.

Back 200 years ago, Ricardo had several reasons to promote competition. It lowers prices, he reasoned, and thus improves the purchasing power of the Luddites. That, in turn, makes them more amenable to technological changes. As for the landowning class, it encourages improved performance, since earnings can no longer be guaranteed because of a monopolistic or oligarchic situation.

Economic changes taking place now, just as they did in the early 19th century, still involve the equivalent of Luddites and rent-seekers. Workers want to impose a tax on the use of robots, while the so-called rentiers defend policies of protectionism. The European Commission in Brussels is accused by both of being an extremist defender of neo-liberal competition, at their expense.

Except these days, in comparison to Ricardo's time, competition isn't just something encouraged by political leaders: It's also a product of technological advances. New information technologies accentuate competition, putting even more pressure on those looking to maintain their rent income.

Let's take the example of transportation. Up until now, the only real competition the French public train SNCF company faced was hitchhiking — almost nothing, in other words. But new technologies have changed the landscape. The emergence of ride-sharing mobile applications ultimately forced SNCF to compete.

sncf macron le pen economics train

SNCF train at Paris Gare de l'Est — Photo: Alfenaar

Pro-competition political leaders had something else in mind: They imagined opening the rail lines to other train companies. But technological progress pushed things in a whole new direction and public authorities, at the expense of SNCF, cleared the way for low-cost buses to be used. After the new companies failed to take off, they were dubbed "Macron buses," since the current candidate, when he was minister of the economy, had pushed for reforms to spur more open, technology-driven competition — what his detractors call the "uberization" of society.

Emmanuel Macron repeatedly tells crowds that the next generation of workers should be prepared to have clients rather than employers. Indeed, along with all the traditional drivers, we now have the salaried drivers of "Macron buses' plus the independent drivers who've attracted clients through various internet platforms, including Uber.

Firm with rent-seekers, understanding with Luddites.

Against the rise of this pro-competition logic, Le Pen has staked out a proudly conservative, anti-competition stance with the implicit goal of drawing rent-seekers and Luddites together. Like Donald Trump, with his promise of reopening coal mines, Le Pen's National Front explains its hostility toward free trade by pointing a finger at outsourcing, downsizing and layoffs of industrial workers, even if the latter is more the result of automation than globalization.

For the National Front, the goal is to protect jobs, particularly salaried jobs. For Macron's En Marche ! party, the goal is to establish a new labor framework that takes into account technology's inevitable role in an surge in competition.

Ricardo recommended being firm with rent-seekers and being understanding with Luddites. This was all the more important, he argued, since resistance by those living off rent is political in nature, while Luddite resistance is based on nostalgia. Nowadays, even if the rent-seekers try to establish a moral and political high ground for their opposition by denouncing the commodification of society, it's clear that they're also, in a sense, Luddites at heart. The situation requires, therefore, reforms that are carried with skill and understanding, but also with resolve.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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