For years now, it has been fashionable on the right to argue that Europe is heading for Armageddon, that it could not survive the consequences of mass immigration, stifling bureaucracy, an overweening welfare state, and restrictive labor laws. This dark view isn’t restricted to believers in Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis and Trumpian ethno-nationalists, though it is widely shared in those quarters. Last year, I heard a well-travelled and urbane British banker argue for a “leave” vote in the Brexit referendum on the grounds that the European Union was destined to collapse anyway, and it would be better for the United Kingdom to be on the outside when the inevitable happened.
Perhaps the catastrophists will eventually be proved right. In the past few months, though, voters in Austria, Holland, and now France have stymied political candidates of the far right who based their appeal on nativism, nationalism, and anti-E.U. rhetoric. In so doing, they’ve defied the expectations of E.U. pessimists.
Three weeks before Christmas, in the final round of the Austrian Presidential election, Alexander Van der Bellen, a veteran center-left politician, defeated Norbert Hofer, of the anti-immigration Freedom Party, by fifty-four per cent to forty-six per cent. In the Dutch general election in March, Mark Rutte, the center-right Prime Minister, came out on top of the polls and was able to reassemble a governing coalition, while Geert Wilders, the Islamophobic founder of the far-right Party for Freedom, received just thirteen per cent of the vote. Wilders’s party won fewer seats in parliament than it did in 2010.
Now we have the results from Sunday’s vote in the first round of the Presidential election in France. The centrist Emmanuel Macron came out ahead of the other candidates, with twenty-four per cent of the vote. Marine Le Pen, the head of the ultra-right National Front, finished in second place, with 21.3 per cent. The two of them will compete in a runoff election on May 7th, in which Macron is the firm favorite.
On Sunday night, Macron received endorsements from two of the candidates he’d just defeated: François Fillon, of the center-right Republican Party; and Benoît Hamon, of the center-left Socialist Party. On Monday, President François Hollande also expressed support for Macron, saying, “What is at stake is France’s make-up, its unity, its membership of Europe and its place in the world.” (The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who got almost twenty per cent of the vote—finishing within two percentage points of Le Pen—withheld his endorsement, but he is also expected to come out against the National Front leader.)
From one perspective, Sunday’s result was shocking and disruptive. For the first time in sixty years, neither of France’s traditional leading parties will have a candidate in a Presidential election. Meanwhile, Le Pen has cemented the position of the National Front, a longtime fringe party, as a major force in French politics. Hitting the campaign trail again on Monday, she declared that the election was a referendum on “uncontrolled globalization” and accused Macron of being “weak” on confronting Islamist terrorism.
Looked at another way, however, Sunday’s result was reassuring for people who worry about the rise of extremism in Europe. Le Pen’s share of the vote was only five percentage points greater than the share her father, Jean-Marie, received in the first round of the 2002 Presidential election. She was bested by Macron, a thirty-nine-year-old former minister in the Socialist government of François Hollande, who portrays himself as the head of a new movement occupying the middle ground, which he calls En Marche—On the Move. Appearing before his supporters on Sunday night, Macron said, “I want to be the President of all the patriots against the threat of all the nationalists.”
The message of these three recent elections is that, so far, at least, the European center has held—an outcome that seemed far from certain twelve months ago. In the first round of the Austrian Presidential election, last April, with the migrant crisis dominating the headlines, Hofer, who campaigned on the Trumpian slogan of “putting Austria first,” finished ahead of all the other candidates. In a runoff held a few weeks later, Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green Party, narrowly defeated Hofer, but the results were annulled after allegations of voting irregularities. As late as August, opinion polls suggested that Hofer would win the rerun.
Wilders and Le Pen, who have worked together to create a far-right bloc in the European parliament, both got a lift from the Brexit vote. They both share a preoccupation with the threat of Islamist groups, peddle similar rhetoric about élitist politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels selling out the common people, and promised to hold referenda on membership of the E.U. in their respective countries if they were elected. (Hofer was a bit more circumspect on this last point. He said he’d a call referendum if the European Parliament took more power, or if Turkey joined the Union.)
A victory for any far-right candidate, but especially for Le Pen, would represent an existential threat to the E.U. Today, all across Europe, pro-E.U. politicians are hoping fervently that the populist wave has crested. Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg national who is the head of the European Commission, congratulated Macron on Sunday’s result and wished him “good luck for the future.” The German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said, “I am certain that Emmanuel Macron will be the next President of France. Great for Europe.”
After the surprises of Brexit and the U.S. Presidential election, it would be premature to endorse Gabriel’s prediction of the outcome of the vote on May 7th. But if Macron were to win—opinion polls currently show him leading Le Pen in a head-to-head contest by twenty points or more—the result would certainly provide some welcome breathing space for the E.U. Half of the Franco-German alliance that underpins the union would have been shored up. And the other half would be looking pretty solid, too. (It seems likely that September’s general election in Germany will be contested primarily between two pro-E.U. candidates: the center-right Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the head of the center-left S.P.D., Martin Schulz.)
For supporters of the European project, there is reason to be hopeful, but not to get complacent. Even if the threat of right-wing populism is held off this time, it won’t go away. Politicians like Le Pen, Hofer, and Wilders are odious, but they can draw support from a broad constituency of alienated and disaffected voters, who, like many Trump supporters in this country, believe the political establishment has ignored them.
In the European context, the challenge in confronting right-wing populism is threefold: restoring broad-based economic growth and job creation to the economy (the French unemployment rate is still at more than ten per cent, and the youth jobless rate is above twenty per cent); dealing with the issues of terrorism and migration from the Middle East and North Africa, which are associated in the minds of many voters; and boosting public support for the political institutions of the E.U., which many people see as remote and out of touch. If Europe fails to meet these challenges in the years ahead, popular resentment could increase further, and with it could come more support for the far right, bringing about the breakup that the pessimists foresee.
In France, Macron campaigned on a platform that he claimed was neither left-wing nor right-wing. It included cutting corporate and payroll taxes, reducing class sizes in schools, increasing military spending, opposing religious discrimination, and persuading Germany to adopt pro-growth policies for Europe as a whole. How important his individual policy positions were is debatable. His background as a technocrat and investment banker hardly made him an obvious candidate to take on populism. But, after the two traditional parties stumbled from exhaustion and corruption, he provided someone for anti-Le Pen voters to rally around.
Even if Macron does emerge victorious from the runoff election, there is no assurance that he will have sufficient support in parliament to fulfill his pledges, or that they would make very much difference. (The recent history of French politics is the history of reformers getting frustrated.) These are questions for the future, though. For now, Macron’s task is to finish the job and defeat Le Pen. Anyone who wants a stable Europe rather than one lurching toward the rebirth of nationalism that destroyed it in the twentieth century should wish him well on May 7th.
Vive L’Europe! A Macron Win Would Give the EU a Lifeline – The New Yorker