Marine Le Pen lost the second round of the French presidential election on Sunday, receiving 35 percent of the vote, according to the generally reliable exit polls. Many of those across the globe who followed the election anxiously will sigh in relief that the centrist Emmanuel Macron won by a margin exceeding 20 percent, but the math is still worrisome. Le Pen won double the percentage of votes that was earned by the last National Front candidate to compete in a runoff election — her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who took 17.8 percent of the second-round votes in 2002. Over a third of the French voters who took the trouble to go to the polls on Sunday chose a blatantly racist nativist as their next president. Hardly a reason for jubilation.
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In the past two weeks, foreign politicians did not even pretend to be neutral about the elections, congratulating Macron on his first-round victory and wishing him well in the second. The European Union has been saved! Both Le Pen and the extreme-left Jean Luc Mélenchon — who would be happy to take France out of the eurozone, the EU and NATO — lost. The safe choice, the young and photogenic Macron, has the keys to the lysée Palace. Another victory for the European center, after the defeat of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands two months ago.
If polls can be trusted, and these days that’s quite an ask, European extremists are set for a few more defeats. In Britain’s June 8 election, the money is on the near-elimination of the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party and a major defeat for Labour under its far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn. And in September, the “mother of Europe,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seems set for reelection. The far-right Alternative for Germany is unlikely to break the 10-percent barrier.
None of this means European liberals can return to their pre-Brexit complacency, however. Not when 52 percent of the votes in the British referendum in June were in favor of leaving the EU. Nor can we discount Donald Trump’s victory in the United States, or the 46 percent of voters in Austria’s presidential election who cast their ballots for a right-wing extremist. The center is holding, for now. 2016, the year of populism, has been followed so far by relative sanity, but the threat has only receded, not disappeared.
Moderate leaders like Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May have been forced to tack to the right to capture ground lost to the populists. Rutte announced crackdowns on immigrant communities during his campaign for the March 15 election. May is fighting a jingoistic campaign, demonizing the EU leaders with whom she will have to negotiate a complex Brexit deal after next month’s election. Meanwhile centrist parties, particularly center-left ones, are shrinking across the continent. In Britain, Labour been taken over by Marxists and is unlikely to be a viable opposition party for at least another decade. In France, both of the parties that shared power for the last five decades failed to make it in to the second round of voting and face uncertain prospects in next month’s parliamentary election. In Sunday’s state election in Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein, the Social Democratic Party lost control of the regional parliament while Alternative for Germany passed the electoral threshold for the first time.
In public opinion polls in Italy, ahead of next year’s election, the populist Five Star Movement is in front of the ruling Democratic Party.
The victory of the 39-year-old Macron cannot conceal the fact that in the first round, it was the youngest voters who went for the two main extremist candidates, on the right and on the left. Just over half of voters under 24 — 51 percent — cast their ballots for Le Pen and Mélenchon.
It’s not just the xenophobic suspicion of immigrants that is fueling the rise of populist, isolationist and pro-Russian parties. A new generation of European voters has lost trust in the old political establishment.
Macron will have to learn the lessons of another charismatic young European politician who was elected to lead his country also a the age of 39. Last week, Italy’s Matteo Renzi won the Democratic Party primary, four and a half months after resigning as prime minister. Italy is in a more advanced state of political meltdown than other Western European countries. The old parties collapsed there in the 1990s, following the Mani Pulite (or “clean hands”) investigation into ties between veteran politicians and organized crime. Then came a period of populist politics under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the regeneration, far from complete, of the political center by a new generation of young politicians. Italy’s establishment parties have long since lost their power, and even the old communists and fascists aren’t what they used to be. Meanwhile, comedian Bepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, a party that prides itself on not being a political party and chooses its policies and candidates over the internet, is on the rise.
Renzi’s attempts to achieve widespread reforms in Italy’s stagnant economy, focusing particularly on the archaic labor laws, just as Macron plans to do in France, were stymied by an obstructionist upper house of parliament. He gambled on a referendum to change the electoral system, and lost when 59 percent of the voters balked at giving the prime minister additional powers. Now he’s back, trying again to sell his fellow Italians a difficult program. The next Italian election, early in 2018, will be another test of his ideas.
Macron and Renzi’s challenges are similar. They must adapt the European welfare state to the globalized economy of the 21st century. They have to try to rekindle hope in a largely apathetic society. Young people fear they will not achieve the standard of living of their parents, who are reluctant to give up on a long and comfortable retirement paid for by a shrinking younger generation. There is the challenge of creating new jobs in a state where traditional industries are bleeding. Finally, both Macron and Renzi must attempt to preserve the European project of economic and political integration, which guaranteed peace and prosperity, when it is under attack from all sides. There are no easy answers. That’s why Macron’s campaign was heavy on slogans and lean on policy. And why Renzi’s first attempt ended in failure. And why after eight years of being led by the young and charismatic Barack Obama, the United States elected Trump.
The challenge facing these two young leaders of Europe, together with the veteran Merkel, will be made that much more difficult when the populist extremist who are competing with them are backed up by the not-so-hidden influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, using hackers and false-news propaganda outlets to spread disinformation and mistrust. Fear of the future will continue to push many voters to the far ends of the political spectrum, until they come up with the answers.