Europe seems to be containing the fever of resurgent nationalism that propelled last year’s Brexit vote as well as Donald Trump’s improbable election here. Emmanuel Macron’s landslide victory over Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election is just the latest sign that continental Europe isn’t catching the populist bug.
Not yet, anyway. Nativist and illiberal nationalist movements continue to make headway in many democratic countries. They could break through and take power—as they did in the United States last November—if mainstream parties can’t channel popular grievances toward constructive change.
As populists push political debate to the right, however, center-left parties are floundering on both sides of the Atlantic. Yoked to stale ideas and change-averse constituencies, they are failing to offer restive voters a radically pragmatic alternative to populist panaceas like cutting off immigration, seceding from the global economy and reverting to zero-sum nationalism.
The progressive malaise has left a vacuum that is being filled either by traditional conservative parties, or by young upstarts such as Macron and Italy’s Matteo Renzi, who are challenging the status quo from the radical center.
As the year began, the populist tide was rising. But Dutch voters threw up the first dike in March by rejecting anti-Muslim crusader Geert Wilders, who like Le Pen conflated immigration and terrorism, elevated ethnic solidarity above “cosmopolitan” values and vowed to take Holland out of the European Union. “The Netherlands said ‘Stop’ to the wrong sort of populism,” declared the incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose free-market oriented People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy led the voting.
Next up on the continent is Germany, which holds a national election in September. Polls and local elections indicate that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are pulling away from the Social Democrats (their junior partner in the governing coalition.) Germany is exceptional in that its post-war political order remains largely intact, while populist forces are relatively weak. The xenophobic and ultra-nationalist Alternative for Germany party languishes in single digits.
Of course, right-wing nationalists don’t need to win power in order to shake up Western societies and turn up the heat on complacent elites. Nonetheless, Europe’s firewalls against demagoguery and extremism seem sturdier than expected—and proved stronger than America’s did last year.
The big question now is whether the center-left can rally and offer a bold and progressive counterpoint to populism. The Dutch Labor Party all but collapsed in the March election. France’s Socialist Party has also cratered; its candidate mustered a meager 6.2 percent in the first round of presidential voting. Manual Valls, Prime Minister under the monumentally unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande, recently declared his party “dead and behind us” and endorsed Macron’s En Marche party in upcoming parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Labour Party is marching resolutely backwards in history under Jeremy Corbyn to the hard left dogma that marginalized the party during the 1980s and most of the 1990s. Corbyn’s votaries seem to have a political death wish, which Conservative Prime Minister Teresa May was only too happy to grant by calling a “snap” election for next month. The party just unveiled a retro manifesto of that calls for renationalizing rail and other industries, price controls on energy, and a slew of costly welfare state expansions. It’s widely regarded as proof that Labour isn’t interested in contesting Britain’s centerground. Most polls point to a comfortable Tory victory.
Then there’s the United States, where Republicans now dominate national as well as state politics. Having relied too much on demographic change to produce progressive majorities, Democrats must now expand their party the old-fashioned way—through persuasion and conversion. As in Britain, many U.S. progressives are enamored of the idea that left-wing populism, Bernie Sanders style, will win back white working-class voters who bolted to Trump. The fallacy here is a kind of economic determinism that gives short shrift to these voters’ deep sense of cultural dispossession. And basic math suggests that in a country where only a quarter of voters identify as liberals, Democrats need to do better across the pragmatic center, among moderates, independents and Republicans who can’t abide Trump.
That’s how Macron won in France. He took votes from the moderate left and right by challenging the parties that have dominated France since World War II, while at the same time rejecting the “extremism” of both Le Pen’s National Front and left-wing populist Jean Luc Melenchon, whose planks included calls for a shorter work week, lower retirement age and taking France out of NATO. Instead of ceding ground to angry populists, Macron stoutly condemned nativism, promised structural economic reforms and defended the European Union.
Macron is an unlikely revolutionary—the insider as outsider. He is a product of the establishment he wants to overturn, an investment banker who served as economic minister under Hollande before breaking with the Socialists and forming his own party. Philosophically, he could be described as a liberal (in the European or more market-oriented sense) with a social conscience. The politicians he most resembles are “third way” modernizers Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
Above all, the 39-year-old Macron symbolizes generational change. Some have likened him to a Gallic JFK eager to get France moving again. His main goal is to liberate France’s torpid economy from rigid labor laws and a suffocating state that consumes nearly 57 percent of national output. Only then, in his view, can France resume its rightful place as an equal partner with Germany in the European Union.
Can Macron rejuvenate the French economy as well as French politics? Obstacles abound. Many who supported Macron in the second round were motivated mainly by their desire to keep Le Pen out of power. His brand new party has to field candidates for 677 legislative seats up in next month’s election. Anti-market sentiments run deep in France, as does resistance to periodic attempts to change social protections and subsidies that weigh heavily on entrepreneurs and younger workers.
There’s every reason to be skeptical, but Macron is not called the “magician” for nothing. His plans for reinvigorating the French economy and reducing inequality through shared prosperity rather than more state redistribution probably represent France’s last and best hope for staving off populism. And if Macron succeeds, his radical pragmatism will show an enfeebled center-left a new way forward.