First, there was Brexit — the referendum where the Brits voted to ‘exit’ European Union (EU). Even though the vote wasn’t overwhelming at 52 for ‘exit’ and 48 per cent for ‘remain’, the die was cast, which the Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May, after taking over from David Cameron who resigned after the vote, sought to skillfully use to further consolidate her position. But as we now know, it hasn’t worked out the way she planned and hoped, with the unexpected shot in the political arm of the opposition Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. She sought to make the election a supplementary referendum, of sorts, on who would be the best leader to get the best Brexit deal for Britain? And seemed in no doubt that the country had already made up its mind in her favour. But she has just scraped through, with her leadership of the Conservative Party and the country open to challenge. The post-Brexit process was supposed to be her Falklands’ moment, in a sense, to show that Britain was still a power in its own right. She was to be the Iron Lady in the tradition of Margaret Thatcher. The election seems to have shattered that illusion.
Even as the Brits are working out how little or how much they want to be Europeans, the US stumbled on Trump who represents the worst of nativist reaction and resentment to an amalgam of supposedly hostile elements within and outside the country from elite establishment to Mexican ‘rapists’, Muslim ‘terrorists’ and others. The US seems to be tearing itself apart politically, with the unedifying and dangerous example of President Trump firing the FBI’s director, James Comey, and then threatening him that he better not leak the material that might compromise Trump because the latter has one up on him with the likely taping of stuff on him. Comey has already appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and this ongoing drama will continue with more witnesses, possibly even President Trump.
With such tragi-comic drama being played out daily in the US in one form or the other as part of rising nativist populism often picking on foreigners, be it the Muslim countries with ban on entry into the US from their countries — though stalled by the courts — or the big great wall to keep Mexicans out, it is an ugly phenomenon raising its head elsewhere also.
It was, therefore, not surprising that the recent presidential election in France became a test of whether it will go the way of Britain, as with Brexit, and the US, with the future of European Union hanging in the balance. And when the centrist Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election in France, there was a collective sigh of relief in quarters that feared further consolidation of the populist movement if Marine Le Pen was to prevail. While the seeming reversal of the populist juggernaut is pleasing, it is not quite clear if this will continue. And there are reasons for this.
First, even though the centrist Macron has won as a sort of non-aligned politician, having launched his party, Republique En Marche, only recently and with very little political experience except as a one-time minister in the last government, his victory is a rejection of the mainstream French politics of the two main political parties, the conservative Republicans and the just booted out Socialists. In rejecting the two conventional political parties, the French voters have voted outside the box, with the extreme right and nativist National Front under Marine Le Pen emerging in the default second position of polling nearly 35 percent of the votes in presidential election.
The French voters might not have voted for the National Front this time but they voted decisively against the political system of the Republicans and Socialists governing, more or less, alternatively but with virtually no change in the conditions of the people. In other words, President Emmanuel Macron has the unenviable task of pushing back the forces of populism by reviving people’s faith in the political system as an instrument of change to better people’s lives, particularly their economic lives.
And that is no easy task. France is caught in an economic rut with unemployment at around 10 percent. Like the political system, economy is not moving, with every successive government promising fundamental change but not being able to deliver. Though Macron is France’s youngest president at 39 years of age and is without much old political baggage, his economic credentials as a merchant banker keen to kick start growth are old hat failing to work their miracle in most economies.
While pro-EU, he wants to reform and revitalise the organisation as a vehicle of economic change. And for this, he would like Germany, as EU’s most successful economy, to lift up the pan-European organisation by, for instance, taking some risks as a guarantor of sorts for other EU members, like with a European budget and European bonds to raise capital for overall European growth. In this way, Macron’s France doesn’t have to be bound by strict limits on national budget deficits.
While Macron’s victory has been welcomed in Germany and much of Europe as a reversal, to a degree, of nativist populism, his expectations of economic revitalization in France and Europe guaranteed, more or less, by Germany’s economic strength, are likely to run into trouble because Berlin has so far insisted on economic austerity to balance books, even at the cost of some danger to EU unity, as with Greece and other member countries with large debts. And if Germany remains tight fisted for its own historical and political reasons, Macron might find it hard to renew and revitalise French economy that might soon give more ammunition to populist forces led by Marine Le Pen’s National Front, with immigrants, EU, Muslim terrorists and whatever else might come handy.
Besides, internally, France is entering new political territory where Macron’s new political party, even with a majority in the national parliament, might find it difficult to maintain discipline as many of its members are new and drawn from different background and experiences. And one can only imagine how such a situation might be exploited by the extreme National Front to legitimise a trend towards fascism in the name of delivering goods.