Has Populism Peaked?

by Philippe Legrain – Project Syndicate   

LONDON – After last year, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and the United States elected Donald Trump as president, xenophobic nationalism was beginning to seem irresistible. Yet France has now become the biggest power to buck the trend, electing as its president the socially liberal, pro-immigration, and pro-Europe Emmanuel Macron. Has the wave of right-wing populism in the West really crested, as some are claiming?

Macron’s remarkable victory certainly merits celebration. An independent centrist standing in his first election, Macron saw off the established parties’ candidates in the first round two weeks ago and won nearly two-thirds of the vote in the runoff against the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen. As the only leading candidate to take a firm line against Russian President Vladimir Putin, he faced a last-minute leak of hacked (and fake) emails and other attempts to smear him.

 Macron achieved all of this by offering a message of hope to an angry and depressed country. He presented himself as a dynamic outsider capable of bringing change to a gridlocked political system. His youth – he is just 39 years old – reinforces the image of renewal. As with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, good looks and easy charm also help.

But fulfilling the promise of change will not be easy. Like Britain and the US, France remains deeply divided between those who favor a liberal, open society and those who seek closed politics and borders, between supporters of European and global integration and proponents of nationalism and protectionism.

Macron’s large margin of victory over Le Pen is misleading, as it obscures French society’s enduring fragmentation and polarization. In the first round, only half of the electorate voted for broadly pro-EU candidates, while the other half backed candidates, from either the far left or the far right, who loathe the EU in its current form. Though Macron came out on top, he secured only 24% of the vote – just three percentage points more than Le Pen and the lowest leading share since Jacques Chirac in 2002.

Like Chirac – who faced Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, in the second round in 2002 – Macron won the runoff by a landslide not because he swept French voters off their feet, but because many could not bring themselves to vote for the National Front. And though Le Pen did worse than expected, her 34% share in the second round was nearly double that of her father in 2002.

In France’s semi-presidential system, Macron can deliver the change he promised only with a supportive majority in the National Assembly. Yet it is far from certain that French voters will give him one in next month’s legislative elections: one recent poll suggested that 61% don’t want Macron to have a majority.

Some projections do have En Marche !, the political movement that Macron founded a year ago and that will contest the elections under a new name, La Republique En Marche !, emerging as the biggest parliamentary group, but suggest that it will fall short of a majority. Some anticipate that the Republicans, who feel entitled to govern after five years of unpopular Socialist rule, will come out on top. They may even win a majority, forcing Macron to appoint a conservative prime minister and government.

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