Can the alt-right be stopped in France?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ANNE APPLEBAUM ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­post.com

The is­sues un­der de­bate in this year’s French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion are broad and var­ied: ter­ror­ism and trade, the re­tire­ment age and so­cial se­cu­rity, the legacy of France in Al­ge­ria and the fu­ture of France in Europe. But in truth, only one is­sue re­ally mat­ters: Can the heady cock­tail of fear-mon­ger­ing, na­tion­al­ism, nos­tal­gia, re­sent­ment, pro-Rus­sian for­eign pol­icy and big-gov­ern­ment eco­nom­ics — a phi­los­o­phy that is de­scribed, un­sat­is­fy­ingly, as “far right” or “pop­ulist,” that takes a par­tic­u­larly vir­u­lent on­line form and that has con­trib­uted to re­cent elec­toral vic­to­ries in the United States and Bri­tain — be de­feated in a ma­jor Western coun­try? And if so, how?

At least un­til scan­dal be­gan to dam­age his cam­paign, François Fil­lon, the can­di­date of the cen­ter-right Repub­li­can party, of­fered what looked like the safest for­mula: steal the pop­ulist is­sues from the “far right” — Marine Le Pen’s Na­tional Front — and make them main­stream. In choos­ing this strat­egy, he was em­u­lat­ing Theresa May, the con­ser­va­tive Bri­tish prime min­is­ter who has de­feated the up­start U.K. In­de­pen­dence Party by an­nounc­ing she will leave all Euro­pean trade struc­tures (as UKIP would have done) and make im­mi­gra­tion con­trol her pri­or­ity (as UKIP does al­ready).

Fil­lon’s ver­sion is slightly dif­fer­ent — he has called for a halt to im­mi­gra­tion from out­side Europe, tougher bor­ders and tougher lan­guage on as­sim­i­la­tion of French Mus­lims — but the idea is the same. Like Le Pen, whose cam­paign has been funded with Rus­sian money, he speaks of friend­ship with Rus­sia. He talks openly about his Catholi­cism in a bid to lure France’s “fam­ily val­ues” vot­ers away from Le Pen, too. But alas, it seems that Fil­lon’s ver­sion of fam­ily val­ues in­cluded putting his wife and sons on the state pay­roll, a story that just won’t go away.

That leaves the con­test in the hands of Em­manuel Macron, a 39-year-old so­cial and eco­nomic lib­eral whose strat­egy is quite dif­fer­ent. It’s been clear for some time that the old left-right split in Euro­pean pol­i­tics doesn’t re­flect real so­cial di­vi­sions, and that the new fault lines are bet­ter de­scribed as “in­te­gra­tionist” vs. “na­tion­al­ist,” or, more bluntly, “open” vs. “closed.” But although the “closed” voices — par­ties such as Le Pen’s Na­tional Front or UKIP — are long es­tab­lished, Macron is the first ma­jor Euro­pean politi­cian to at­tract mass sup­port by putting up a vig­or­ous, ac­tive and an­gry de­fense of “open.” “I de­fend Europe,” he told a Bri­tish jour­nal­ist. “If you are shy, you are dead.”

His strat­egy, so far, has been built on de­fi­ance of ide­o­log­i­cal stereo­types. Macron has a back­ground in bank­ing but speaks about “col­lec­tive sol­i­dar­ity.” He served as a min­is­ter in a So­cial­ist gov­ern­ment but has said that “hon­esty com­pels me to say that I am not a so­cial­ist.” In­stead of a tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal party he has his own move­ment, En Marche — a rough trans­la­tion might be “For­ward” — that he launched, to wide­spread skep­ti­cism, in 2016. He has in­vited U.S. sci­en­tists, es­pe­cially those work­ing on cli­mate change and clean en­ergy, to come live in France. He wants to roll out the red car­pet for Bri­tish aca­demics and busi­ness­men marginal­ized by May’s re­treat from Europe, too.

He also at­tracts en­e­mies. Be­cause his vic­tory would strengthen both the Euro­pean Union and NATO, Macron’s cam­paign has nat­u­rally at­tracted the at­ten­tion of those who want to de­stroy them. Both Wik­iLeaks (which claims to have “se­cret doc­u­ments” on all the can­di­dates) and the Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda chan­nel RT have at­tempted to show sin­is­ter links be­tween Macron and Hil­lary Clin­ton. The pre­dictable whis­per­ing cam­paign is con­spir­a­to­rial (“Macron is part of a se­cret ca­bal”), anti-Semitic (“Macron works for the Roth­schilds”) and per­sonal (“Macron is gay”). That kind of neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing — based on slurs and hys­ter­i­cal al­le­ga­tions — has worked bril­liantly in other coun­tries, and there is plenty of time left for it to suc­ceed in France.

Macron’s suc­cess will de­pend on whether he can with­stand the com­ing smear cam­paign, and then pull off a trick that has so far eluded his Bri­tish, Dutch and other coun­ter­parts: Unite the cen­ter-left and the cen­ter-right be­hind a sin­gle ban­ner, and run a cam­paign that is pa­tri­otic as well as “open,” tough on ter­ror­ism as well as “in­te­gra­tionist.”

The stakes are high. If he loses, mus­cu­lar lib­er­al­ism will dis­ap­pear from France for a gen­er­a­tion. But if he wins, he will have many ea­ger im­i­ta­tors, not only in France but also across the con­ti­nent and around the world.

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