Sat, Apr 29, 2017 - Page 9 News List

As European mainstream wins, populist issues stay dominant

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron appears on course to forestall a populist victory in France’s presidential election, but right-wing themes continue to dominate political discussion

By Steven Erlanger and Alison Smale  /  NY Times News Service, LONDON

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

There was palpable relief in mainstream Europe on Monday at the success of former French economic minister Emmanuel Macron, independent centrist, in the first round of the French presidential elections, and a wide assumption that he will defeat the far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen in a runoff two weeks from now.

After other recent electoral setbacks for far-right populists, and the far right’s flagging momentum in Germany’s election campaign, some even suggested that the French election could represent the high-water mark of the populist surge that has voted Britain out of the EU and US President Donald Trump into power in the US.

If this is a high-water mark, though, the water remains quite high.

For the moment, the parties and personalities that have energized far-right populism have not fully crystallized electorally, but the issues that have animated the movements — slow economies, a lack of jobs, immigration — are not going anywhere, and the far right has already moved the political terrain in its direction.

The politics of Europe remain, at best, precarious, even if the center — the French-German core of the EU — appears to be holding, at least for now.

“There is a sigh of relief,” said Jan Techau, director of the Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin. “It’s good that in addition to all the other issues on the agenda, we don’t also have an extremist French problem.”

After a year of unpredictable elections in Europe and the US, it would be unwise to discount Le Pen entirely, even if her odds are long. Still, the French result was particularly welcomed by Brussels and Berlin, which have been praying for a French partner willing to challenge both the statist structure of France and the complacency of the EU. And, after weeks of market jitters, investors on Monday cheered the results, with global stocks surging and the euro reaching fresh highs.

Macron believes in economic liberalism, a reformed France and a more flexible EU, while Le Pen threatens to take France out of the bloc, which would in effect mean breaking it over her knee.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker broke protocol to congratulate Macron and wish him continued success, as did the German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, who said: “He will be a great president.”

By winning more votes than Le Pen, Macron, who at 39 is on course to be France’s youngest head of state since Napoleon, seemed to many to be a new generation’s centrist answer to sclerotic and corrupt establishment politics and the challenges of populism and the far right.

Even so, candidates of the far right and far left did very well in the voting, reflecting strong and skeptical views among the French public.

“Of course many people in Brussels and so on are relieved that we don’t have two extremists in the last round, but only one,” said Guntram Wolff, a German who directs Bruegel, a Brussels-based research organization.

“But the fact of the matter is that we still have a little bit more than 40 percent of the electorate having voted for an extremist,” Wolff said. “So that shows that a large part of the French population doesn’t seem to be very happy with his or her own position and pretty dissatisfied with the political system.”

The question for many is whether a centrist reformer like Macron, a former investment banker, is prepared to seriously take on board the dissatisfaction of ordinary working people.

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