Goldstein: Populism Will Survive Macron

Emmanuel Macron’s victory is a minor setback for the forces of the far right.

by Matthew Goldstein | 5/12/17 12:25am

If French president-elect Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election can be called a landslide, then the column inches hyperbolically trumpeting it as the wholesale rejection of global populism can rightly be called a tsunami. The authors of a Washington Post piece on the election couch the French people’s decision in mythological terms, saying that “France ... shrugged off the siren call of right-wing populism.” CNN asserts, in heroic language, that Macron defeated populism in the “great political battle between globalism and nationalism that is underway in Western democracies.” The Huffington Post calls Macron’s victory “somewhat comparable to Napoleon Bonaparte.”

Reading this coverage, one might think the 39-year-old former investment banker a latter-day Atlas singlehandedly shouldering the weight of the perilously-situated liberal world order. And even the thinkpieces acknowledging that the troubles of world populism cannot be solved by one country’s election of one man take Macron’s victory as emblematic of a positive trend.

Not so fast. If anything, the French election should deepen worries about the influence and pervasiveness of far-right parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Since its founding by Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie in 1974, the filial partnership has run for president a total of seven times — he five times, she twice. Before this year, the Le Pens had reached the second round of France’s presidential election only once, in 2002. In that round, Jean-Marie won 17.8 percent of the vote. Sunday, Marine Le Pen won 33.9 percent, more than doubling the National Front’s best-ever showing on the French national stage. Furthermore, according to analysts, the National Front could win 100 or more seats in the upcoming French legislative elections — 100 seats, that is, out of a total of 577. This will enable Le Pen to fulfill her promise to become the primary opposition to the nascent Macron administration. How far the party of “Holocaust denials” and “overt racism,” which won only two parliamentary seats in 2012, has come.

Some punditry on Macron’s win also posits a new anti-populist trend in 2017 Europe, standing in stark contrast to 2016’s nationalist protectionism of Brexit and other far-right movements. The defeat of Geert Wilders, the Netherlands’s own E.U.- and immigration-hating candidate, serves as putative evidence for this trend. However, the proponents of this narrative fail to note that even though Wilders lost, his party gained eight parliamentary seats, bringing its total to 20 in the 150-seat Dutch Parliament. Not only is this representative of a populist sentiment that is growing, not shrinking, it is also a large enough proportion of seats to make Wilders’ Party for Freedom a significant opposition force. There may, then, not be any anti-populist trend in a Europe whose governing bodies will be in part beholden to expressly populist interests.

Moreover, the root causes of today’s global populism remain present and are likely to be exacerbated in the coming months and years. There are clear, traceable connections between refugee crises, terrorism and the rise of the right. The Syrian civil war, raging for years, has produced an incredible number of refugees — over five million at the last count of the United Nations’ refugee agency. These displaced people frequently make their way westward, joining similarly situated Mediterranean-crossing North Africans in Europe.

Citizens of France, Germany, the U.K. and other countries are then confronted with the influx of populations whose practices are frequently inimical to those citizens’ conceptions of their national identity. Terrorist attacks perpetrated by members of those refugee populations, as well as those carried out merely in hatred of the West, bolster people’s perceptions of a present or impending clash of civilizations. Far-right parties — some, like National Front, with racist roots to boot — capitalize on this fear, pushing nationalist agendas, closed borders and a sociocultural definition of national character. Compare this progression of events with what we know about the rise of Trump, Le Pen, Wilders or any other reactionary, revisionist Western leader you care to choose.

The problem for the populist-trend doomsayers is twofold. First, Bashar al-Assad’s long, bloody war, the Islamic State’s domination of parts of Kurdish Iraq, Libya’s lawlessness and other Middle Eastern crises are currently all but intractable. Second, absent effective U.S. leadership, it is unclear that the West will have any significant hand in stopping them. Therefore, the number of refugees landing on Europe’s shores is liable to increase, not decrease. If the causal chain described above holds, this should bode well for right-wing populists’ future electoral hopes.

Is Macron’s victory better for the current international order than a Le Pen win would have been? Certainly. But do the results of the French election mean that the rise of populist nationalism has come to a halt, or that its characteristic xenophobia and aversion to longstanding norms will begin to fall? Absolutely not — perhaps, worryingly, just the opposite.