Has pop­ulism peaked?

The Baltic Times - - COMMENTARY - Philippe Le­grain

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, proim­mi­gra­tion, 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 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent 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.

Macron’s prospects also de­pend on how many dis­en­chanted (or op­por­tunis­tic) So­cial­ist and Repub­li­can politi­cians choose En Marche !, not to men­tion Macron’s abil­ity to cut deals with par­ties and can­di­dates. If no can­di­date in a con­stituency wins a first-round ma­jor­ity, the top two, plus any can­di­date who ob­tained more than 12.5 per cent of the vote, go through to the runoff. Elec­toral pacts are thus vi­tal to se­cure the with­drawal and sup­port of less pop­u­lar can­di­dates who might draw votes away from En Marche ! can­di­dates, half of whom will be new­com­ers to politics.

And gain­ing a work­ing ma­jor­ity is only the first step. If he suc­ceeds, Macron will need to de­liver the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic shake-up that he has promised, in a coun­try that has re­sisted re­form for decades.

Most French vot­ers are sick of a po­lit­i­cal class that feath­ers its own nest while ne­glect­ing their con­cerns. Macron wants to make the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem more open and ac­count­able, with fi­nanc­ing of po­lit­i­cal par­ties be­com­ing more trans­par­ent. He wants to bar politi­cians from hir­ing their rel­a­tives, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing paid po­si­tions, and amass­ing over-gen­er­ous pen­sions. And he wants to cut the num­ber of par­lia­men­tar­i­ans by a third.

But per­haps the big­gest chal­lenge fac­ing Macron will be to per­suade Ger­many’s next chan­cel­lor, to be elected in Septem­ber, to work with him to re­form the euro­zone. A more flex­i­ble, growth­friendly ap­proach will re­quire Ger­many to ad­dress its vast cur­rent-ac­count surplus of 8.6 per cent of GDP. Here, pres­sure from Trump may, for once, be help­ful.

Macron also wants to build a more in­te­grated, ef­fec­tive, and demo­cratic euro­zone, with its own bud­get, fi­nance min­is­ter, and par­lia­ment. If Ger­many is se­ri­ous about mak­ing the sin­gle cur­rency work, it should en­gage con­struc­tively with Macron. If it doesn’t – or if Macron fails to re­form France – lib­eral democ­racy might end up even worse off.

Like Macron, Mat­teo Renzi was 39 when he be­came Italy’s prime min­is­ter in 2014 on a prom­ise to shake things up. But Renzi failed to change much, soon be­came un­pop­u­lar, and re­signed af­ter los­ing a ref­er­en­dum last De­cem­ber, leav­ing anti-euro pop­ulists well placed to win the next elec­tion. Let’s hope Macron does much bet­ter.

Philippe Le­grain, a former eco­nomic ad­viser to the pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Commission, is a vis­it­ing se­nior fel­low at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics’ Euro­pean In­sti­tute and the au­thor of Euro­pean Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess – and How to Put Them Right.

Philippe le­grain

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