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Five Lessons for Europe from the French Presidential Election

After Emanuel Macron won the French presidency with a higher than expected margin (two-third of the votes), it might be important to draw some conclusions on what this means for European politics in general. In this post, I will not focus on the difficult policy choices that Macron will have to face, neither will I predict the possible outcome of the upcoming parliamentary election in France. Instead, I will propose some conclusions about the state of populism in Europe.

1) The mainstream is not dead.
The Brexit vote, the US presidential election and the Italian referendum all amplified an apocalyptic vision about the future of Europe: the ‘liberal’ mainstream in the West is dying; the rise of anti-liberal populists and the collapse of the post-WWII multilateral World are inevitable. However, the results of the Dutch parliamentary election and especially the recent French presidential election, have proven the very opposite. The liberal mainstream shows resilience in most Western countries. In France, the ‘Republican Front’ proved to be rock solid, with just a minority of voters of Fillon and Mélenchon (who refused to ask his voters to vote for Macron) gravitating towards Le Pen. Given that Macron’s programme is the essence of the pro-European, liberal mainstream, this seems to be a strong indication of the fact that the mainstream is still alive and well – but of course, what matters a lot is who the voice of the mainstream is.

2) Personalities matter more than programmes.
What is interesting is that Macron could win with a very pro-European programme in a country where Euroscepticism is extremely strong these days. Marine Le Pen’s programme was full of populist and popular promises, targeting the existing fears of economic slowdown, unemployment, immigration and terrorism. Macron’s recipe was nothing revolutionary new, rather – as discussed above – a reiteration of the values of the European mainstream. Of course, seeing the discontent with the current state of the European Union, he stressed the need for reforming the EU quite vocally between the two rounds – but when doing so, he called for more, not less integration.

Still, Macron could win with a quite strong majority, how is this possible?
One of the major reasons for Macron’s success is that he could play the role of the ‘political newcomer’ – even if he had been a minister in the Valls government, and his background thoroughly binds him to the mainstream. His campaign, like Barack Obama’s in 2008, could articulate the message of change, from an insider playing the role of the outsider.
Macron never ever ran for elected office before. Compared to him, Marine Le Pen, who has been in high politics for one and a half decade, seems to personify the political establishment more than Macron does. We could see this in the Netherlands as well: Geert Wilders as one of the longest-serving Dutch parliamentarians has lost some of his anti-establishment appeal. If these (established) populist politicians have to face a newcomer or somebody perceived as one, they have a much harder time to communicate the message of change. Macron’s success, built on the well-known commonplace in political science and political psychology of the dominance of personality over politics, was that he could sell an ‘old’ mainstream programme with the image of the newcomer.

3) Putin is not omnipotent.
The US presidential election has lead to the misconception that Moscow can play a dominant role in influencing European politics. The French presidential election was a clear refutation of the notion that Moscow is omnipotent in orchestrating elections in the West. While the Kremlin tried its best to interfere with the political processes in France, running the ‘anyone but Macron’ strategy (pitting Fillon and Le Pen against Macron) and trying to undermine the results with cyber attacks at the last moment. As I wrote with Alina Polyakova before the first round of the election, the Kremlin’s strategy to push the far-right candidate could backfire. Le Pen even shook hands with Putin in Moscow late March – while Putin is not really a popular figure in France.

The centre-right candidate Francois Fillon, the far-right Marine Le Pen and the far-left Mélenchon were all calling for better French-Russian relations and the abolition of the sanctions, so Putin quite understandably thought – before the meteoric rise of Macron – that he could only win with this election. But finally, the only serious candidate who was more reserved towards Moscow won the election.

The Kremlin went against Macron so spectacularly for so long that it will make it difficult for Putin to mend the French-Russian ties, which are quite essential, both economically and politically. In the past Putin has managed to establish good relations with two French presidents, who were politically reserved towards Russia in the beginning of their terms: Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. But rebuilding Russia’s relationship with France now, after a brutal disinformation campaign against the new head of state in which Macron was depicted as a gay, Jewish US agent, will be extremely difficult.

4) The far-right has not been definitively defeated.
As Cas Mudde warned recently, after the danger of exaggerating the impact of the far-right in European politics, we should now avoid shifting towards the other extreme: to come to the conclusion that they reached their ‘ceiling’ and will become irrelevant from now on. It seems to be sure that the populists’ expectations concerning big, revolutionary changes in European politics might have been too optimistic, and that they can lose momentum after their non-fulfilled promises of electoral breakthrough. But, let us not forget that Marine Le Pen gained almost twice as many votes than her father back in 2002 – which is certainly a huge success. Geert Wilders also made gains in the Dutch parliamentary election this March. And while in the German election, AfD is not expected to make a big political change, it seems to be pretty likely that they will enter the Bundestag. Populist radical right parties will remain important players in European politics, with a chance to improve their electoral results; the ‘virginity’ of most of them in terms of governmental politics remaining appealing in the eyes of many voters.

5)  The Italian and Austrian elections will be vital.
We should not forget that there are further elections to come in 2017-2018. While the German parliamentary election is expected to strengthen the pro-European mainstream, in Austria (FPÖ) and Italy (M5S) anti-establishment, populist, Eurosceptic parties are leading the polls, with a significant chance to become governmental forces after the next elections. How radically revolutionary they would be in power, is a question though. We could observe that Marine Le Pen, as the election approached, mainstreamed her programme significantly to the point of almost abandoning her promise to leave the eurozone. A similar thing happened before with Hofer in the Austrian elections. While the moves of FPÖ, a party that has been part of the Austrian political establishment for several decades, are easier to predict than those of M5S – a party that made great promises about leaving the eurozone and re-negotiating Italy’s debt – the proximity of power, typically, has a sobering effect on populists.

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