Cross-posted at Education Week.
My flight from New York arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris about 12:30 p.m. and an hour later I slid into a taxi for the trip into the city. My cab driver, I discovered, had a only a bit of English and I had even less French, but we managed a conversation.
It was two days before the second and final round of the French election. The contestants, as you may know, were Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Le Pen had campaigned on a nativist, anti-immigrant platform centered on withdrawal from the European Union and rapprochement with Vladimir Putin. She has often been compared with President Trump, who has returned the favor by expressing his sympathy for her views and his hope that she wins this election. She is a seasoned politician. Her opponent, Macron, had been Minister of Economy for the Holland administration, has declared himself an independent and describes his platform as holding the “radical center.” In this case, that means staying in the EU, embracing the liberal economic order that the United States led the world in constructing after World War II, and making France more competitive in the global economy, rather than withdrawing from it.
I asked my taxi driver how he planned to vote. He said that both candidates are “very dangerous,” but he would vote for Le Pen.
“Why?” I asked.
“Black taxis,” he said. “I am making 30 percent less than I did just a couple of years ago.”
It turned out that he did not mean the unlicensed drivers who hang out in the airport trying to get customers.
“Do you mean Uber?” I asked.
“Uber!” he cried. “Yes, Uber.” He showed me the many maps he had of the metro area. He waved them in the air, telling me how much he had invested in his cab, in learning the area, in getting licensed and meeting all the government regulations that apply to taxis, none of which the Uber drivers need to do.
He looked at me, than pulled his pants pockets inside out.
“Empty pockets,” he said. “I have no money.”
He was silent for a few minutes. Then he pointed to an 18-wheeler going by. He said that the rumor going around is that Uber is already getting into the trucking business, too, and they would impoverish the truck drivers. I could not tell whether he meant that Uber would treat the trucking business the way they have treated the taxi business or whether he was saying that Uber would put driverless trucks on the road in France and put the truck drivers out of work that way.
My taxi driver said that he could no longer feed his wife and young daughter. Though he grew up in Paris and has always lived there, he started making shoveling motions, with one hand on the wheel.
“If I cannot find work,” he said. “I will go sud.”
“South?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said with a grin. “South, that is, to the south of France. To…”
“To farm?” I asked.
“Oui, oui,” he said. He has never farmed and has no idea how do it. He is, he said, desperate.
Paris, if you leave out the slums where many immigrants and refugees live, is booming. But much of the French countryside is an economic disaster zone. Entire villages are for sale for a song in some parts of southern France. You can buy a charming old home for very little, but you may have few neighbors among the empty houses in the village.
I asked my driver how Marine Le Pen was going to help him.
“She is for the little guy,” he said. “Macron is not.”
It may have been the language barrier, but try as I might, I could not get him to tell me what exactly Marine Le Pen had said that gave him confidence that he would be able to make a living in Paris if she became President. Every answer he gave me suggested that it was simply that, because she is for France for the French—first, last and always—he would end up better off than he would be with an internationalist.
I felt right at home. The politics of France looked a lot like the politics of the country I had left just a few hours earlier. The United States now has two economies, one for the rich and one for the poor. So does France. The politics follow. However this election comes out—we will know by the time you read this—both countries must address this problem in a serious way or democracy is likely to be in deep trouble.