Thu, May 04, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Macron optimism masks historic meltdown in European politics

By Marc Champion  /  Bloomberg

Former French minister of economy, industry and digital affairs Emmanuel Macron, the favorite to win the French presidency next month, has been greeted as a potential savior for financial markets and the EU. That requires a leap of faith.

The problem is that he could be heading into territory that sank others before him. The challenge of reforming France was too much for former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and is only getting harder as a new divide between champions of nationalist protectionism and defenders of open borders realigns post-war politics across the Western world.

Europe is experiencing a political “earthquake” comparable to the era of industrialization, which produced many of the traditional political parties whose support is now collapsing, King’s College London politics lecturer Edoardo Bressanelli said.

That seismic change allowed Macron to fill the vacuum as the French Socialists and Republicans were driven out of the presidential race for the first time in six decades, but it also threatens to swallow him up.

The risk was exposed on Wednesday last week outside a soon-to-close Whirlpool plant near his hometown of Amiens in northern France, where he tried to explain to protesters the importance of respecting the rights of foreign investors.

A woman told him they were tired of governments from the establishment making promises and doing nothing for them.

“I’m not the left, I’m not the right,” Macron shouted over the swarm of angry workers.

Meanwhile, his opponent, National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, has promised to keep the factory open. She attacked Macron as a proponent of “savage globalization.”

The question is not so much whether Macron, 39, will win on Sunday as it is whether he will ultimately succumb to such forces. If he does, Le Pen’s populist alternative will be waiting in the wings.

“You have to ask, what is Macron going to do?” Oxford University professor of European politics Jan Zielonka said.

Zielonka is writing a book, Counterrevolution, that describes how the backlash stems from before the financial crisis or the rise of China to liberal reforms in the 1990s.

“He has to figure it out quickly and, these days, he will have very little time,” Zielonka said.

CALCULATING RISKS

One problem is that Macron’s year-old En Marche movement has no legislators in the French parliament and it will struggle to win the 289 seats needed to secure a governing majority in June elections. So he will still need to rely on lawmakers from the defeated main parties to form a government and drive through legislation.

They might be conflicted about whether to help him succeed, European Council on Foreign Relations director Mark Leonard said.

If they do, they risk losing voters to En Marche, Leonard said, adding that if they undermine him, they might squander a last chance to keep the kind of world they want, boosting Le Pen’s likely next bid for the presidency in 2022.

“For the socialists in particular, it’s a choice between death by asphyxiation or drowning,” Leonard said.

In 1967, a pair of political scientists wrote a seminal paper on what they called the “freezing hypothesis.”

They said that ever since the emergence of socialist and conservative parties to champion either side of the social divide created by 19th century industrialization, the same parties had mostly held sway even as societies changed.

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