Is this the turning of the tide?
If only. Although Marine Le Pen’s showing fell short of the worst fears of her divided and flawed adversaries, for any neo-fascistic party to score the level of support the Front National has in a leading, mature liberal democracy is, by turns, appalling, shocking and terrifying. We need to regain perspective and face what is happening.
There is no necessary reason to believe the far right will recede into the jumble of cranky clericalist sects that characterised French fascism. Within a short space of time, it has gone mainstream and almost grabbed power.
So simply because she has become a household name across Europe and has sought to radiate a homely detoxified appeal – quite bogus, as it happens – shouldn’t make Le Pen’s achievement any less historic.
Democrats across Europe and the world should acknowledge, reflect and act on the fact that she has come so close, much closer than her father two decades ago, to gaining executive authority in a global power.
Whereas Jean Marie Le Pen barely added to his vote in the second round of voting when he challenged President Jacques Chirac back in 2002, his daughter has succeeded in broadening her party’s appeal markedly. Who is to say that this is the high point and the end of the story?
The rise of the far right in France to unprecedented levels of popularity is like the relative triumphs of the far right in contests in Austria and the Netherlands; it points to a deep malaise in European and particularly French politics. The French are deeply pessimistic and a glance at the unemployment figures and life in the banlieues explains why. Social dislocation, radicalisation, racism, terror and the rise of extremism can, at least in part, be traced back to the long stagnation of the French economy. The EU and the unsolved weaknesses in the euro system must also share in the blame for a near political cataclysm.
Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, notably in Hungary and Poland, a nasty strain of authoritarianism is taking hold. More widely still, from Trump to Erdogan and from Putin and Modi to Xi, and now also in Britain, hard nationalism is hardly in retreat.
Europe is unlikely to survive as a bastion of decent liberal values if its politicians continue to fail its people, fail to listen to the discomfort about globalisation; about migration; about, above all, a lack of jobs for the young. Sometimes forgotten, that economic weakness was also the spark for the Arab Spring, and much of the tragedy that has followed it. These financial forces have driven much of today’s disjointed politics.
The irony is that the very policies which could deliver economic growth are unpopular. What is needed is some leadership in the form of political figures prepared to explain to the public why their economy is broken and why the easy answers of protectionism and migration bans do more harm than good.
Macron shows promise as a reforming economics minister in his time as well as a gift for salesmanship. In a TV studio he used sweet logic and some sharp sloganising to defeat the “high priestess of fear”. He is smart, Macron, and he knows the stakes are high. If, like Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande, he complacently fails to create jobs for the French, Le Pen or maybe some similar successor will be back. They only have to be lucky once.
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