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Macron’s victory halts Europe’s far right – for now

Emmanuel Macron waves as he leaves after a visit at the Saint Christophe market square in the Paris suburb of Cergy, on Wednesday, as part of his first trip after being re-elected as president of France on Sunday. Picture: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Emmanuel Macron waves as he leaves after a visit at the Saint Christophe market square in the Paris suburb of Cergy, on Wednesday, as part of his first trip after being re-elected as president of France on Sunday. Picture: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Published Apr 30, 2022

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Ishaan Tharoor

France’s presidential election is over, but the battle is just beginning. After securing another five-year term in Sunday’s second-round vote, President Emmanuel Macron now braces for the coming legislative elections in June. The centrist leader’s opponents, including the defeated far-right leader Marine Le Pen, have vowed to carry on the battle, and may yet thwart Macron’s bloc in the centre from achieving a decisive parliamentary majority.

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“He is validated with a mandate to continue the work, but no honeymoon is to be expected at all,” said Célia Belin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, during a Monday webinar.

“He’ll be facing political opposition from Day 1.”

Analysts expect Macron to use his second term – he can’t run for reelection in 2027 – to press hard on some of his signature issues. Recognising the peril of climate change, he has promised to take major steps down France’s path to decarbonise its economy. And he will double down on his vision of a more robust, integrated and geopolitically independent Europe, with France at its heart.

But myriad questions remain over how Macron will reckon with a society marked by deepening polarisation and disgruntlement. The anger of the gilets jaunes (yellow-vest protesters) who filled France’s streets over Macron’s proposed hike in fuel taxes, has hardly dissipated, nor the pervasive view of the president as an aloof elitist cut off from the ordinary needs of the French public.

Critics say Macron, whose centrist movement has co-opted elements of France’s much-diminished traditional centre-left and centre-right factions, is walking an impossibly fine line; leftwing disenchantment, in particular, may loom over his second term.

“A key question will be whether his choices will further amplify growing polarisation in France, split into emboldened far-right and farleft blocs, with Macron and his allies occupying the centre, or whether he can reduce the appeal of the political extremes,” wrote my colleague Rick Noack.

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Yet the fact remains that Macron still scored a decisive victory over Le Pen and showed, yet again, that the far-right candidate has hit a ceiling.

The European political establishment breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday evening, when it became clear that the occupant of the Elysee would not be a xenophobic Eurosceptic with a history of Russophilia.

On the same day, Slovenia’s three-term populist prime minister Janez Jansa was defeated by centrist rivals. That and Le Pen’s latest setback were a blow to right-wing nationalists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has spoken grandiosely of a time when illiberal nationalists will sweep to power across the continent.

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Macron’s re-election, thanks in part to voters who sided with him only to thwart Le Pen, shows that a popular bulwark against such illiberalism still very much exists, no matter Le Pen’s steady electoral gains over the past decade.

“The biggish Macron victory does show that the European ideal is more implanted in EU countries than we might sometimes think,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm.

Now, the focus may turn to infighting within the French far right, with Le Pen possibly scrapping with a rival faction led by nativist firebrand Éric Zemmour. Those battles may see a “tremendous amount of competition and dysfunction” in the far right, Rahman added, as it struggles to “become a more coherent movement under one leader”.

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That leader may not be Le Pen, whose father Jean-Marie Le Pen – a convicted Holocaust denier and founder of France’s primary far-right party – was rebuffed in a second-round vote two decades ago.

“This could well be the end of the decades-long cycle in which the French far right was dominated by one family,” political scientist Pascal Perrineau told the Financial Times. “If the far right are to take power, they will need a new person to embody the movement. But for now it’s still hard to see who that person will be.”

Right-wing nationalists will have other opportunities to make their mark in Europe. Next year, Italy and Spain are slated to hold general elections. In the former, two far-right parties could dominate a future coalition government. In the latter, the ascendant far-right party Vox has compelled the centre-right Popular Party to tack in its direction. Their opponents fear the rise of a strain of nativism not seen in decades.

“We thought we were vaccinated against the far right because of the dictatorship,” Nadia Calviño, first deputy prime minister of Spain, told me, gesturing to Spain’s long rule by fascist dictator Francisco Franco.

“Unfortunately, we were not. It shows every society is vulnerable to the rise of extremism and populism.”

Calviño, who is also the economic minister in Spain’s left-leaning government, added that “we should not normalise the messages coming from populist far-right parties, which, in the case of Spain, is anti-European, anti-feminist, anti-migration and even opposed to basic elements of our constitution like the decentralised political organisation of the country”.

In France, though, many lament that the far right has been all but normalised. Even centre-right politicians, like failed presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse, invoke the racist theory of the “Great Replacement”, which conjures a society where the liberal establishment is seeking to actively thin out the white nativeborn population. Macron, meanwhile, has been criticised for pandering to right-wing concerns over immigration and Islam, while pursuing economic reforms that have alienated the left.

“The moral of Macron’s re-election is that in class-ridden societies, the left-right division remains essential,” wrote Greek leftist politician Yanis Varoufakis. “When centrist politicians succeed in obscuring it, they get caught in a dynamic feedback loop with the ultra-right that makes them sound shriller and more irrational, while making the ultra-right seem deceptively more palatable.”

Rahman of Eurasia Group counters that, despite this “move to the extremes”, there remains “a lot of potential in the French centre” – not just in Macron’s own party, but a host of other smaller factions that the president may count as allies. But, first, they have to get elected to Parliament.

* Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he writes the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column.

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