For all of Europe’s many crises – Italian debt, migration, troublesome eastern states, Brexit – it seemed until relatively recently that its political leadership was at least strong and stable, to borrow a phrase. As Angela Merkel’s 18-year reign in Germany drew towards a slightly anti-climactic finale, the emergence of the energetic, charismatic new president of France, Emmanuel Macron, seemed to promise at least another firm hand pointing the way. Now that Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats have chosen the favourite to succeed her, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the French seem equally set on replacing Emmanuel Macron, though in a rather less orderly fashion. Suddenly, Europe is entering a new, more dangerous phase in its development, and with an increasingly weak sense of purpose.
Mr Macron’s one-man political movement, En Marche! is ironically named indeed. The president can be forgiven for feeling a little bewildered as he sits, effectively besieged in the Elysee palace, caricatured by the increasingly militant Gilets Jaunes protesters as if he were some effete Bourbon.
After all, despite his previous adamantine stance, he has caved in to their demands that increases in the duty on diesel and petrol be reversed; he has offered them talks, though with his prime minister Edouard Philippe rather than himself, a move that may presage a certain amount of scapegoating. Mr Macron’s reforms of the French economy have barely registered, and yet the reaction against him has been violent, extreme and seems to have developed an ugly momentum of its own.
For the Gilets Jaunes are now mutating and dividing into peaceful and violent wings. Inflamed by propaganda and fake news stories about France becoming some sort of internationally designated dumping ground for millions of migrants, some sound as if they want nothing less than the resignation of the president himself – and will pursue all means to make it happen. Others simply want Mr Macron to lay off, and, somehow, rearrange France’s economic affairs so that working people can once again enjoy the rising standard of living they have come to expect. The shades of similar political movements in America and elsewhere in Europe are perfectly apparent. Indeed, in much more muted form, the same problems led to the collapse in support for Germany’s mainstream parties in recent national and regional elections.
For a while, the contrast between a chaotic France and sobersided Germany is enticing. The reality is that both countries suffer from much the same economic and political malaise. Even in Germany, which has enjoyed remarkable export-led success, there is a section of the working class and certain regions that have not fully shared the rising tide of prosperity. In both countries, far-right parties have grown in strength and confidence to a degree that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago, virtually wiping out the socialists and social democrats as a political force. Much the same has happened in Sweden and elsewhere. The prospects for the elections to the European parliament next summer look especially grisly. The EU’s legislature – which has acquired important powers – may soon be transformed into a play pen for fascists, fruitcakes and fantasists, big time.
And so the new leader of Germany and the embattled leader of France find themselves facing similar forces, albeit expressed and pursued by different means. Indeed it is hard to find a corner of Europe – Britain included – where vaguely normal politics is proceeding on anything like conventional lines, with Italy the outstanding example of real-world neofascism in power. Italy’s vaccine-sceptic so-called “government of change” has sacked the entire board of the country’s most important committee of experts, who advise the government on health policy. Europe is richer, freer, and more open than ever before – and yet it is witnessing the recrudescence of political evils not seen since our continent ended its last civil war in 1945. We live in dangerous times, and all the more so as we seem so short of strong and stable leaders.
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