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Will this man save the European Union?

This was originally published on 12th May, 2017, and republished on 4th January, 2022.

The victory of the liberal, establishment-backed Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election was predictable and straightforward, as with the Dutch election that preceded it. The snap British election seems very likely to have a similar result, and the German election too. It looks rather like a return to the status quo. After their shocking 2016, the media have been over-cautious in predicting political events in 2017. Come year’s end, though, the theme of a return to the status quo will be widespread, and we will be told 2016 was simply an aberration. Reality will not be so simple, and what happens in Europe in the years to come may well depend on the new French president.

To put it another way: Emmanuel Macron has five years to prove he is the saviour of the European Union.

(Image: The New Yorker)

2017 being the ‘return of the status quo’ is not entirely wrong. Liberalism is the status quo, and liberal parties — either major parties or backed by them — are winning across the board. But the status quo is more than that. The status quo has western nations being dominated by institutions that have been in place since the end of the Second War, backed by political parties that have an unquestioned and unchallenged position at the top. There has been no real, significant threat to this order of things until now, for now, even as liberals win and are likely to continue winning throughout the rest of the year, each victory comes with a caveat.

In the Netherlands, it comes with the caveats of liberal parties being the only option for government, and votes being increasingly split among a wider amount of parties to a larger degree than ever before. In the United Kingdom, it will come with the caveat of the liberal Conservative Party being the heirs of the Leave campaign, a decidedly anti-establishment position. In Germany, it will come with the caveat of the AfD making inroads into the one of the most impenetrable political systems in Europe.

And in France, it has come with the caveat of Marine Le Pen making a serious run for the presidency, against the full weight of a political and media establishment that did their best to undermine her. Macron may have received 66% of valid votes cast in the second round, but the proportion of votes cast in the second round — also 66% of registered voters — was the lowest since 1969, when none of the socialist candidates made it to the second round. It was not anywhere near an overwhelming victory for Macron, as Jacques Chirac had in 2002 against Jean-Marie Le Pen, and is also highly unlikely to stop Marine as the 2002 result stopped her father.

In 2002, FN made the second round because there were sixteen different parties running, seven of which were socialist parties. The Socialist Party, as a result, bled votes to these other parties. so much so that it ended up coming third behind FN by 200,000 votes. Those voting for the myriad of parties that were not the National Front in the first round continued to have no interest in voting for them in the second round, and Le Pen managed to get only 1% more of the vote in the second round, a mere 18%.

Mass protests against Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 (Image: Quartz)

In 2017, the situation has changed. Liberalism is not the omniscient, benevolent force it was fifteen years earlier. The French economy has continued in a downward spiral, unwilling and unable to replace its shrinking manufacturing centre, and still feeling the aftershocks of the decade-old financial crisis that still threatens to return at any moment. It is in such circumstances that questions of culture arise, and no European country seems as likely to return to nationalistic fervour as France, where nationalism currently lays quietly, a sleeping giant that will awaken at any moment. It is in France that questions of mass immigration have been asked the longest, always to the answer that the European Union provides: unity in diversity. This is the answer that Macron has given as well.

In fact, many of Macron’s answers to the questions of the French people come from the EU playbook, a bold strategy given the relative unpopularity of the European Union right now. Many ‘Europeans’ are now feeling torn about the EU, desperately wanting its promise of peace on the continent, but desperately wishing it went about achieving that in a different way. The solutions of the European Union to the continent’s dilemmas have been the solutions of the liberal status quo, and they appear not to be working. What then for Macron, who is offering the same solutions, to an even greater extent? His argument has been built around the idea that France has not embraced liberalism enough, and only when it does can all the problems of the nation be solved.

As I said, it’s a bold strategy, but is unlikely to stop Le Pen, and not only because Marine is much more palatable than her father. If his strategy works, it will still benefit some at the expense of others, at least over the next five years, which is the length of Macron’s term. Those others will turn to Le Pen (and Melenchon) in greater numbers than they did at this election. If it doesn’t work — surely the more likely option of the two, given how liberalism has fared across the continent in recent years — then Le Pen is all but assured of victory in 2022. Macron’s failure to change France’s direction will have been a failure liberal policies and positions of the ‘élite’ that has governed France and the European Union for so long. With a Le Pen victory will come the end of the European Union, for France is the key to its continued existence.

Emmanuel Macron’s election is not a return to the status quo; it is a test of the continued existence of that status quo.


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