What the French vote says about European politics

French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron clenches his fist as he addresses his supporters at his election day headquarters in Paris. Christophe Ena / AP Photo
French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron clenches his fist as he addresses his supporters at his election day headquarters in Paris. Christophe Ena / AP Photo

When the first round of the French elections was completed, one part of the story was that the centrist, Emmanuel Macron, who has no political party presence to speak of, made it into the run-off. Crucially, he is not a populist, nor is he on the right-wing of French politics, which seemed to indicate France was bucking the trend in western societies that had led to Brexit in the UK, a Trump presidency in the US and the rise of the far-right across Europe. But that is only part of the story. The second part of the narrative is that the next runner-up was Marine Le Pen, a representative of the French far-right. What does that say about French politics and, more widely, Europe itself?

In the aftermath of the vote, there was a lot of excitement about Mr Macron winning the first round and a lot of dread about Ms Le Pen finishing second. It may be more appropriate to temper both emotions.

Mr Macron is hardly aiming to redraw the face of French politics in some sort of massively radical way. He is, after all, described as a centrist. In a world where so much radicalism is gaining popularity, including the far-right populism that threatens to severely damage how the very basis of European politics is managed, Mr Macron’s victory is cause for some relief. The world could do with less upset, rather than more.

That is the reality of the current period of politics in Europe – that there is so much uncertainty, except that if radical change is to come, it is likely to be from the far-right end of the spectrum.

It is for this reason that the continued existence of the European Union is politically and pragmatically a far more preferable idea to any other alternative. But the malaise that infects European politics at large should not be underestimated. What is called for right now are small measures to prevent cataclysm.

But let us also consider the meaning of Ms Le Pen’s achievement. She finished second and she will almost certainly increase her share of the vote in the second round. If she were to get only 30 per cent of the vote, it would mean there was still one out of every three French voters who didn’t find her far-right politics beyond the pale. And she is likely to get significantly more than that. It wouldn’t mean that every person who voted for Ms Le Pen was a racist – people vote for all sorts of reasons – but it would mean that the bigotry her campaign has championed would not be a red line for a lot of French voters.

That is going to have serious repercussions for many years.

But let us also be clear about the scale of this achievement. Ms Le Pen was supposedly riding the right-wing populist wave that delivered Mr Trump and Brexit. She was apparently benefiting from, among other things, Russian interference in the process, a recent terrorist attack and the increased presence of ISIL activity. And yet, her share of the vote, as compared to her party’s candidate in 2002, was only a few points increased. As compared to her party’s share in 2015’s European elections, Ms Le Pen lost six points.

We should not be complacent. It is still remarkable and troubling that an openly far-right candidate in Europe of 2017, can do this well. That has everything to do with how so much of the far-right’s platform has become mainstream in European politics. Anti-Muslim bigotry continues to exhibit disturbing resemblances to how Jewish Europeans were talked about in the early 20th century. A noted French analyst, Rim Sarah Alouane, commented on Twitter: “I find it extremely ironic to see right-wing leaders calling to vote for Macron [in the second round run-off] while the very same leaders embraced Le Pen's racist xenophobic nationalist ideology.”

And therein lies a great apprehension – and one that should trouble Mr Macron, his supporters and others who oppose the far-right in Europe more generally. The goal should not be to simply keep out the likes of Ms Le Pen from the upper echelons of power. There is much more to fight for. It has been the failure of the political mainstream to deliver on an inspiring political vision that has allowed Ms Le Pen and others to rise. Mr Macron has his work cut out should he win the presidency. Watching what happens in June’s legislative elections in France will give more for us all to analyse about France’s future.

In all likelihood, Mr Macron will be France’s next president. The response to that by the French and by Europeans in general ought to be a commitment to work that much harder.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in ­London

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Published: April 26, 2017 04:00 AM

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