Has Populism Peaked?

By 

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.

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% 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.

On the economic front, Macron must lubricate arthritic markets and lighten the tax and regulatory burden on risk-takers, while helping people to cope with disruptive trends like globalization and automation. Above all, he needs to reduce unemployment, particularly among young people, nearly a quarter of whom are out of work.

All of this will require Macron to overcome entrenched vested interests. Even ordinary citizens, despite largely recognizing that the system is dysfunctional, often resist change, for fear of losing whatever they do have.

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, growth-friendly approach will require Germany to address its vast current-account surplus of 8.6% 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.

More from Philippe Legrain

Brexit Into Trumpland

British Prime Minister Theresa May is leading the United Kingdom toward a very “hard” Brexit in 2019 – and potentially off a cliff, if the UK leaves the European Union without an exit or trade deal. In her January 17 speech, May outlined her objectives for negotiating with the EU, and made it clear that […]

Italy On The Brink

Political instability in Italy is nothing new. But Italian voters’ rejection of constitutional reforms in a referendum has not only led Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to resign; it has dealt another blow to a crisis-ridden European Union. In the near term, Italy’s ongoing banking crisis could flare up again and threaten European stability; in the […]

President-Elect Trump’s New World Disorder

So much for the end of history. Twenty-seven years to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the collapse of communism in Europe, Donald Trump’s election as US president endangers the liberal international order that his wiser, broader-minded predecessors crafted. Trump’s “America First,” anti-“globalist” agenda threatens protectionist trade wars, a worldwide “clash […]

Mayday In The UK

Conservative Brexiteers – who campaigned for the United Kingdom to vote to leave the European Union – continue to blather about building an open, outward-looking, free-trading Britain. But the UK is in fact turning inward. Prime Minister Theresa May, who styles herself as the UK’s answer to Angela Merkel, is turning out to have more […]

Three Paths To European Disintegration

For once, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, may be correct. She has called the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union the biggest political event in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That may turn out to be true: Brexit has destabilized the UK and could end […]

The Economic Consequences Of Brexit

Those campaigning for Britain to exit the European Union claim that doing so would make their country both freer and richer. They assert that after “Brexit”, the UK could quickly negotiate a bespoke agreement with the EU that offers all the benefits of free trade without the costs of EU membership; strike better trade deals […]

The Battle For Britain

The Islamic State’s attack in Paris in November was the latest crisis to delay Britain’s bid to renegotiate its membership in the European Union, ahead of a planned referendum on whether to maintain the relationship. First Greece, then refugees, and now terrorism have dominated the diplomatic agenda instead. On December 3, Conservative Prime Minister David […]

The Disintegration Of Europe

If a clear signal was needed that the European Union is falling apart at an alarming rate, Hungary’s construction of razor-wire fences along the border with its fellow EU member Croatia is it. The crisis in the eurozone has, of course, fragmented financial flows, caused economies to diverge, eroded political support for EU institutions, and […]

The Eurozone’s German Problem

The eurozone has a German problem. Germany’s beggar-thy-neighbor policies and the broader crisis response that the country has led have proved disastrous. Seven years after the start of the crisis, the eurozone economy is faring worse than Europe did during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The German government’s efforts to crush Greece and force […]

The Eurozone’s False Recovery

At first glance, the eurozone economy seems like it might finally be on the mend. Stock markets are rallying. Consumer confidence has picked up. Lower oil prices, a cheaper euro, and quantitative easing by the European Central Bank are all expected to boost growth. ECB President Mario Draghi claims that “a sustained recovery is taking hold,” while […]

The Eurozone Has Become A Glorified Debtors’ Prison

With no lasting solution yet found for dealing with Greek debt, and economies in the Eurozone continuing to suffer from weak growth, how can Europe finally solve the problems brought on by the financial crisis? In an interview with EUROPP’s editor Stuart Brown, Philippe Legrain discusses the policy failures at the root of the crisis, the need […]

PHILIPPE LEGRAIN

Philippe Legrain is a Senior Visiting Fellow in the London School of Economics’ European Institute. From February 2011 to February 2014, he was economic adviser to the President of the European Commission and head of the team that provides President Barroso with strategic policy advice in the Bureau of European Policy Advisers.