France: Is the populist tide receding?
“Liberalism, it turns out, isn’t dead after all,” said Matthew Karnitschnig in Politico.eu. After a year in which the U.S. sent a nativist to the White House and the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, many feared that this week’s French presidential election “would be the coup de grâce for Western democratic ideals.” Mais non! Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron instead achieved a resounding 66 to 34 percent victory over his farright rival, Marine Le Pen, despite a last-minute leak of documents stolen from his campaign by suspected Russian hackers. The result, which followed recent defeats for nationalist candidates in Austria and the Netherlands, is welcome proof that populism isn’t an unstoppable force. Call it the President Trump effect, said Frida Ghitis in CNN.com. More than 80 percent of French voters view our commander in chief unfavorably, making them less inclined to support their own angry outsider. Trump, who offered Le Pen his tacit backing, “has become a liability for nationalists.”
“It is far, far too early to declare victory against populism,” said Yascha Mounk in Slate.com. Le Pen won more than a third of the vote—a record high for a French far-right candidate—and her support was “strongest among the young.” Macron’s victory also does nothing to solve the deep, structural issues driving populism in the West, such as high levels of immigration and the “growing chasm between affluent urban centers and a stagnant periphery.” If anything, the French election “represents the new normal,” said Shadi Hamid in TheAtlantic.com. Rather than the Left battling the Right, Western politics will increasingly pit the establishment against populist-nationalists. This new movement isn’t like socialism, an ideology that can be categorically rejected at the ballot box. It’s a set of incoherent “feelings, frustrations, and sentiments”—a validation of “the people.” The identity of “the people” will change over time, but populism as a political force is here to stay.
Those celebrating Macron’s impressive victory shouldn’t get carried away, said Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post. Still, it’s worth considering how the former investment banker won. “He offered no impossible schemes or unattainable riches” and told voters what they needed to hear instead of what they wanted to be told. That, surely, is the key to countering populism. Rather than “mourning” the normalization of nationalists like Trump and Le Pen, the political center needs to confront their “toxic appeal” head-on. ■