KONGJudged from halfway across the world, the first round of the French
presidential election is more embarrassment for France than cause for alarm.
Nonetheless, it does serve to highlights some issues which are highly pertinent
for Europe and have resonance in Asia. They will likely still be alive when the
name Le Pen is as forgotten in Asia as Poujade is today.
The dominance of market-led,
predominantly private, global capitalism is overwhelming. So the differences
between candidates become blurred, and the sort of personality politics which
elected Joseph Estrada in the Philippines, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Tony
Blair in Britain and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy takes over.
Outside the main consensus rests a large
minority of malcontents. Some vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen, some for so-called
Trotskyites, some for the greens and many for no one. As yet they are united by
no ideology - but they just could be if economies turned seriously sour for an
extended period. There is a need to take hard-won democratic opportunities
seriously, not as an extension of showbiz. It may not have been deliberate, but
the French have humiliated one of the most honorable politicians in all Europe.
Whatever their politics, most voters would surely rather buy a used car from
Lionel Jospin than from Berlusconi, Blair or Jacques Chirac.
The demographics that are part of the
problem in Europe could well be in Asia, too. Low birthrates have created a
demand for immigrant labor. Meanwhile, nearby North and West Africa have some of
the world's highest birthrates and established migration routes. Immigration has
become both an economic necessity and a source of social conflict for Europe
because of cultural differences and the perception that such marginalized
immigrants are a major cause of crime. Prosperous Asia has worse demographics
than Europe. Hong Kong now boasts the world's lowest birthrate, and Singapore is
not much better.
The European Union must put real effort
into building relations with North Africa. That would provide these countries
with better opportunities for economic development and bring them closer to
European political and social norms. Europe's failure in this respect contrasts
with Japan's success in building economic relations with its former subjects in
The vast and still growing power of the
Brussels (and now Frankfurt) bureaucracy, whose political accountability is
second- or third-hand, has made many democrats in France as elsewhere
disillusioned with the system. So moderates vote for fringe figures. Berlusconi
for one has benefited from this reaction. France, which still wields more
influence in the EU even than Germany, is in a position to address this issue.
Last but not least: several Asian
countries can see the wisdom of the two-round presidential voting system.
Single-round elections with multiple candidates, as seen in the Philippines,
South Korea and Taiwan, can have disastrous results.Thanks to the framers of the
Fifth Republic, French voters can soon make amends.