Has populism peaked?

In Blog by Philippe Legrain0 Comments

After the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump last year, many had a sense of foreboding about the elections this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Xenophobic nationalists who claim to speak for “the people” (their supporters) against “liberal elites” (their opponents) had the wind in their sails. As Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front put it in her debate with Emmanuel Macron last week, “I think I’m best placed to talk to this new world that’s emerging, to talk to the Russia of Putin, to the United States of Trump, to the Britain of (Theresa) May.”

Fortunately, French voters thought otherwise, electing Macron president by 66% to 34%.

There is also good news from Germany, where support for the far-right, anti-immigration AfD has plunged. Last September, the AfD got more votes than Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU in a state election. Until recently, it looked like the AfD might get 15% of the vote or more in September’s federal elections. But now, the party is riven with inflighting, their leader recently resigned and they are polling below 10%.

Right on cue, there has been a rush to proclaim that the populist wave has crested. So can people who believe in open, liberal societies relax? No.

We should certainly celebrate Macron’s victory; even if you aren’t keen on him, just think how you would feel now if Le Pen had won. But his margin of victory is deceptive, as I point out in my latest column for Project Syndicate. Like Britain and the US, France is deeply divided between those who favour open, liberal societies and those who want to pull up the drawbridge, stamp on difference and try to turn the clock back. Fortunately, most far-left and conservative nationalists could not bring themselves to vote for a racist – this time. But unless Macron delivers the political and economic shake-up that he has promised, which depends partly on German agreement to reform the dysfunctional eurozone, Le Pen, or someone like her, will be in pole position in the next presidential election in 2022.

Next month, British voters look set to deliver a huge parliamentary majority to “Theresa May and her team”, also known as the Brexiteer, English nationalist Conservative Party. While May is not Le Pen, nor is she a liberal or a fan of openness. Remember her nativist “citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere” speech last year. Shamefully, her government has scrapped Britain’s commitment to admit (a mere) 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees. Her hard line on Brexit is driven by her hostility to immigration, which leads her to prioritise a further clampdown to get the numbers down, rather than the UK’s economic interests. And while she claims to want a “Global Britain”, a hard Brexit and tighter immigration controls will close what’s left of Britain off from the world. Worse, May is encouraging a nasty strain of authoritarian populism, whereby judges who enforce the law are “enemies of the people” and those who favour a soft Brexit are “saboteurs”.

Austria’s coalition government also collapsed yesterday, and the far-right Freedom Party, a party founded by former Nazis whose candidate got nearly half of the vote in the recent presidential election, is in pole position for the parliamentary elections that now look set to happen in the autumn.

The situation in Italy, which must hold elections within the next 12 months, is ominous too. The Five Star Movement, which started off as healthily anti-establishment but is now pro-Putin and anti-immigration, is leading in the polls, while its potential coalition partners, the racist Northern League and the Brothers of Italy party, are also doing well.

Last but not least, the most powerful man in the world, President Trump, also continues to do huge damage, as Jonathan Freedland points out.

In my book European Spring, I argued that to defend and strengthen our open societies Europe needs political entrepreneurs who put forward a bold, positive agenda for change to address the legitimate anger of those let down by economic and political failures. Europe needs more Macrons. Where, for instance, is Britain’s?

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Thank you, and have a good weekend.

Philippe