LAUSANNE, Switzerland — The results in the first round of the French presidential elections on April 21 hit like a seismic shock. Veteran rightwing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen took second place. There are many reasons why. Some are statistical: Sixteen candidates across the spectrum split the votes of the mainstream parties. There are, however, far more profound and worrying reasons. Racism is a feature, especially in working-class areas where immigrants tend to congregate. Crime is rising, and there is a good deal of insecurity. The proportion of immigrants in France is high, and they have not been well assimilated.

There are also many problems in France that are familiar to Japan: corruption, the traditional political class’ loss of credibility and legitimacy, the absence of reform and a general social malaise and introversion fostered by rapid changes brought about by technology and globalization. The French establishment tends to be contemptuously aloof and arrogant. A good deal of Le Pen’s vote, therefore, was motivated by protest. People are disoriented, frustrated and angry; there is a leadership crisis, and finding scapegoats is tempting.

Le Pen is roughly to France what Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara is to Japan. Both have been on the political scene for a long time; both are mavericks; both are quite charismatic, intelligent and manipulative; and both are xenophobic rightwing extremists and racists.

Le Pen has called the Holocaust “a detail of history”; Ishihara has denied that the Nanjing Massacre occurred. Le Pen plays a great deal on fears and the imaginary threats posed by immigration; Ishihara publicly called on the Self-Defense forces to be ready to put down riots of immigrants and foreigners that might erupt in the event of an earthquake.

It has been quite evident now for over a century that liberalism, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s remark about democracy, is the worst possible form of governance, except for all the others. Nevertheless, liberalism is repeatedly and consistently under attack by various forms of extremism and xenophobic nationalism. The price of maintaining liberalism, like democracy, is vigilance, vigilance for the sake of current and future generations; lest diverse forms of totalitarianism once again create the havoc and suffering they have throughout the previous century — including its worst manifestations: Stalinism, Nazism and what was termed “Japanism.”

One of the main threats to vigilance is complacency and, worse, cowardice. I have openly criticized the European establishment, especially business leaders, for insufficiently defending the cause of liberal governance.

In 1995, when I founded The Evian Group as a coalition of government, industry and opinion leaders for liberal global governance, I was often told that my assumptions were too alarmist. The chief executive officer of one French company questioned whether such an initiative was necessary as “there is no crisis.” I responded that perhaps now, as the 21st century was approaching, we could think in terms of “avoiding a crisis.” Well, since 1995 there have been a number of crises and the liberal order has been under attack both from the totalitarian left and from the extreme right, the latter illustrated in the electoral successes of people such as Austria’s Joerg Haider, Italy’s Gian Franco Fini, America’s Tom DeLay, Le Pen and Ishihara, among others.

Though some of the socio-political causes that account for the emergence of people like Ishihara and Le Pen are similar, in France there has been a strong popular groundswell and demonstrations of indignation and hostility to Le Pen, unlike in Japan with respect to Ishihara. Partly for this reason, not only was Le Pen ultimately decisively defeated in his bid for the presidency, it is also highly unlikely that he, or anyone of his ilk, would be elected to, say, mayor of Paris, as Ishihara was to the governorship of Tokyo.

Thus for all the similarities there may be between the current French and Japanese socio-political malaise, and Le Pen and Ishihara, there are differences. The enormous groundswell of protest in France against Le Pen has been quite heartening. To many foreign observers of Japan, the terrible thing is not necessarily the fact that Ishihara and other Japanese political leaders should periodically make extremist remarks but that Japanese public opinion should be so passive and seemingly unconcerned.

Though, as I mentioned, the French establishment, including captains of industry, must share part of the blame for recent political outcomes, at least none of them coauthored a book with Le Pen. The fact that the late Sony Chairman Akio Morita, one of the most respected business leaders of Japan, should have coauthored a book with the self-proclaimed racist Ishihara was very alarming. Arguably even worse, however, was the absence of any reaction in Japan, in general, and at Sony, in particular. If the CEO of a major global French company had coauthored a book with Le Pen, I believe there would have been massive protests and he would almost certainly have been ostracized by his peers. By contrast Morita was being considered for the presidency of Keidanren (Japan’s federation of economic organizations).

The absence of vigilance is conspicuous when problems are not openly discussed. In Japan, as in France, there is a grave problem of racism. While it continues to fester in France, at least it is openly discussed. In Japan, it tends to be brushed under the carpet.

Earlier this year when I gave a talk at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London on Japan and spoke about the problem of racism in Japanese corporations and institutions, a young Pakistani woman working for a Japanese public organization came up to thank me, telling me that in her organization the problem was acute but the subject was taboo.

In the 1960s, Japanese diplomat and historian Tatsuo Arima published a book titled “The Failure of Freedom.” This was an analysis of the political developments in Japan in the 1920s and ’30s seen not from the manipulations of the militarists and extremists, but from the abnegation of liberals, including business leaders, academics and journalists.

Freedom failed, Arima argued, not so much because of those who took it away, but because of those who failed to defend it. In the global era, global solidarity of liberal forces everywhere, including in Japan, to preserve and indeed enhance the liberal order is an absolute imperative.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.