French President Emmanuel Macron weighed in on Sweden’s election, condemning the nationalist candidate who threatens to cause an upset in Sunday’s vote.
"This person is not compliant with your story and your values,” Mr Macron told Sweden’s SVT Television, referring to Jimmie Akesson, Swedish nationalist and chief of the Sweden Democrats.
The French leader was responding to a radio interview in which Mr Akesson declined to differentiate between Mr Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"I think it tells a lot," Mr Macron said of Mr Akesson's stand. "This is a leader who doesn't know the right ranking of values and interests."
His inability to choose between a France – “a country respecting human rights”, a “member state of the European Union” and “one of the great democracies” – and Russia should cause concern among the country’s electorate.
“I do respect Vladimir Putin and I am one of the leaders who says we need to construct a new security and defence architecture with Russia. We need this discussion with Russia,” Mr Macron said. “But Putin’s dream is the dismantling of the European Union.”
Mr Akesson defended his position on SVT Sunday. “Why would I choose?” he said. “On the one hand, we have a Russian – more or less dictator – who is extremely aggressive and invades neighbour countries. On the other hand, we have a French president who is an EU-federalist and travels around Europe to speak ill of the national state, nationalism, all that I stand for.”
He then conceded that Sweden "is more like France regarding its constitution" than it is similar to Russia. "But that was not the question in that particular situation," Mr Akesson said.
The latest polls, conducted by Inizio for Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, have the Social Democrats – led by current Prime Minister Stefan Lofven – slated to form a minority government with a weak and uncertain mandate. If predictions are correct, the Social Democrats are heading for their worst election ever with 24 per cent, down 0.6 per cent from the previous poll.
The Swedish Democrats rank third (18.7 per cent), a result that would see them holding the balance of power. Their calls for a “Swexit” (the Swedish equivalent of Brexit), however, have so far garnered little support among voters.
The populist party largely built its consensus through anti-immigration rhetoric after Sweden received 163,000 asylum seekers – among the highest per-capita rates in Europe – and following a spate of shootings, grenade attacks and vandalism in deprived areas often inhabited by immigrants.
European Union antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager echoed Mr Macron, saying that liberal democracy can always triumph over authoritarian rule.
“Democratic, liberal politics – undramatic as it may seem, compared with the promises of authoritarians – is the tortoise that has won the race, over and over, to make our lives healthier and happier and richer,” Ms Vestager, a Dane who’s from the same political family as Mr Macron, said in a speech in Brussels on Monday.
She went on to say that Europeans need to resist “people who want to keep us in a state of fear”, including opponents of the refugee influx who suggest “our values of democracy, of openness, of protecting vulnerable people, make it impossible to deal with the crisis”.
The vocal stand on Mr Akesson is not Mr Macron’s first appeal against a far-right resurgence and in favour of a united Europe.
While on a three-day trip to Denmark, the French leader asserted that “true” Frenchmen and Danes “do not exist”. What exists is a common European identity that revolves around a liberal conception of human rights.
“Even your language is not just Danish — it is European. The same is true for the French,” he said, triggering angered reactions among some French political commentators.
The French president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have been championing a pro-European bloc that has increasingly come under fire by the growing anti-immigration and Euro-sceptic camps in the rest of Europe.
Italy has become Europe’s fastest-growing hotbed of populism after voters turned to Lega and the Five Star Movement earlier this year, while the landslide victory of the right-wing Fidesz party in Hungary has been hailed as a model for Europe's hard-line rightists.
In June, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini spoke of a "League of Leagues" to unify European nationalists under the same umbrella. With Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, he vowed to combat what they see as a pro-migration bloc led by the French president.
Mr Macron accepted the role bestowed upon him. “If they wanted to see me as their main opponent, they were right to do so,” he said.
The European Union is set to hold its general elections in May 2019, where Eurosceptic forces are expected to perform strongly. Mr Macron said during Sunday’s interview that he was “not the one to judge or comment on your domestic political life”.
“It’s [up to] your voters and your people to react to [Akesson’s stand],” he said.
The Social Democrats – like other European labour parties in recent elections – seem nonetheless destined to face setbacks in the coming vote. Only one party running for elections in Sweden chose to campaign on a pro-European agenda.
The Kremlin rejected Mr Macron’s comments with spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling journalists the Russian president was in fact working to develop ties with member states and strengthen the union.
"With regards to respect, the president answers in kind. He has developed a very constructive working relationship, and good personal relationship [with Mr Macron]," Mr Peskov said.
"In terms of Putin's relationship towards the EU, we unfortunately must argue that it is not Russia's doing if this relationship is in rather a chilly situation," he said.
"It is in our interests that the EU is prosperous and stable. President Putin has made this approach clear on several occasions and there is no plan to change it."