By Alec Vandenberg
I hate to burst your baguette, but Macron’s triumph over Le Pen last week represented more of a relief than a victory for Western democracy and values. Instead of affirming the European Union, the Eurozone, and mainstream French politics, voters repudiated Marine Le Pen and her National Front’s extremism and nativism –hardly something to drink a wine toast to.
Despite the slow advance of global democracy the past few decades, make no mistake: populist authoritarianism has yet to fully rear its ugly head. From encroaching totalitarianism in Hungary and Turkey to rising hate crimes in Germany and Sweden to close calls in Dutch and Austrian elections, the world has been waiting with bated for the collapse of the Western order as we know it. But democracy will not end with a bang, or an election, but with a whimper.
Back to France. Despite the initial rush of euphoria after the final count of ballots, there’s much to remain concerned about.
For one, a spectre is indeed haunting Europe –a spectre of neoliberalism, or “a modified form of liberalism tending to favor free-market capitalism.” Macron, formally an investment banker and member of the economic cabinet of the hugely unpopular socialist President François Hollande, despite his projection of himself as a political outsider, still plays the game that’s been slowly eroding the foundation of Europe. This game of incrementalism, or complacency with the status quo, has failed to adequately cope with the increasing burdens of terrorism and demographic changes while simultaneously has alienated large swaths of Europe which views the bureaucracy of their countries and especially the European Union as cold and distant. This is why outgoing president François Hollande has a dismal favorability rating of 4%. But Macron hasn’t proved to French voter’s that he’s different –he’s proven that he’s not Le Pen. Even still, Le Pen still received 34% of the vote, a telling number that indicates that a sizable portion of France, and Europe, feels disenchanted and angry.
And, to prevent extremist gains next election, Macron must first cobble together a working coalition –no small feat considering Macron’s new party currently holds no seats. The worry is that more years of gridlock or incremental change will do nothing to calm the rising storm and instead will add fuel to the fire.
The next tests for Europe: upcoming elections in Germany, which has assumed the mantle of Western leadership post November 8, and Italy, which is reeling from the growth of the populist Five Star Movement and the recent resignation of their Prime Minister Mateo Renzi after he lost a referendum (David Cameron anyone?). The goal here should not to be simply to avert disaster –it must be to provide a stable and forward-thinking response to the apersonal nature of globalization and the very personal threats facing Europe.
France has long prided itself as the moral heartbeat of the continent. Averting the election of an extremist is a start, but it will require bold leadership and policy to preserve and reform the European Union and steer France and Europe out of a dark era of terrorism, culture wars and political upheaval. Viva not the revolution but rather the restitution –the restitution of sense and sensibility and a Europe of peace and prosperity.