Watching “Le Debat 2017”, it was remarkable to see how easily the energetic and smart Marine Le Pen was demolished by the inherently insipid Emmanuel Macron.
Despite putting himself at the head of a new political “movement” (one that will fail to win many seats in the parliamentary elections next month) and being the favourite to win the presidency on Sunday, Macron is precisely the kind of “establishment” candidate that Le Pen wanted in the final round. According to the Brexit/Trump script, she should have flattened him. Instead she was herself humiliated, unable to answer the sweet reason Macron threw back at her, as well as some well-crafted soundbites, memorably “the high priestess of fear”.
So, is that that? Well, there’s still room for a surprise, as I do wonder exactly how honest people are to pollsters about voting for the Front National, but it is also perfectly possible that, after last night’s duel, Macron will win by an even larger margin than has been expected. With the defeat of far right candidates in Austria and the Netherlands, the downfall of Le Pen marks another European turning point.
So far from the Brexit/Trump victories heralding a wave of right-wing populism across the West, the year 2016 may come to be seen as something of an Anglo-Saxon aberration, a “moment of madness” in politics. By the way, Theresa May and her Brexit agenda are not having it so easy in our own general election.
The worry is that Le Pen is not going to go away. As with the other far right groupings in Europe, the wonder is really how it came to be that a leader of what should have been an “alt-right” fringe gang came to scoop about 40 per cent of the vote in a major mature liberal democracy such as France, and come so uncomfortably close to winning power. Nor is it the first time that the Le Pen family have caused the establishment so much grief – after all, her father also made it to the final ballot in 2002 – and she looks like doubling the support he received then. Look at the electoral map of France and you see how sharply divided and polarised the nation is.
France will not be liberated from this xenophobic pestilence until people stop voting for it, and that means that the French government has to start creating some jobs for French people. That failure is the biggest single reason for the rise of the far right, for social division and the despair felt by many of France’s young, especially the descendants of immigrants in the notorious banlieues. This economic malaise is feeding the sense of pessimism that mars France today, across society. Le Pen is merely a symptom of it.
Will Macron be able to fix things? We shall see, but it will not be easy without a strong following in the country and in parliament – and without some radical market-driven reforms. All of his immediate predecessors promised economic change – notably Nicolas Sarkozy, who once styled himself as the French Margaret Thatcher – and all have failed. If Macron follows this pattern, then in five years Le Pen, or some successor to her, will again mount a spirited challenge. And the far right only has to get lucky once.
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