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Mainstream, VOL LV No 21 New Delhi May 13, 2017

French Presidential Elections: Ultranationalism Rejected, Europe Heaves a Sigh of Relief

Sunday 14 May 2017

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

In a way the outcome of the French presidential elections is a vindication of the belief, held by many perceptive observers of Europe, that the prospects of Right-wing populist leaders and parties capturing power in that continent were grossly overrated. This was already proved in the Austrian and Dutch elections held last year and in March this year respectively when voters in those countries decisively rejected the far Right, anti-Islam, anti-immigrant and anti-European Union parties of Norbert Hofer in Austria and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Norbert Hofer had campaigned on strengthening the country’s borders (Austria was virtually the gateway of Syrian refugees on their way to Germany in 2015), its Army, limiting benefits to immigrants and favouring Austrians in the job market. Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom wanted to ban the Koran and close mosques. However, the voters in Austria and the Netherlands would have none of it and preferred to stay the course of liberalism and tolerance that Europe has embraced following its gory, imperialist past, some would say by way of expiation.

The results of the French presidential elections were a crucial test if the trend of rejection of ultranationalism, set by Austria and the Netherlands, in contrast to the victory of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit referendum verdict in the UK last year, was going to be sustained. It may be recalled that, apart from being the land of the great French Revolution which (in many ways) changed the course of human history with its gift of liberty, equality and fraternity, France was the country which took the initiative leading to the Schuman Declaration of May 9 in 1950 that proved to be the precursor for the birth of the movement for European unity culminating in the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC), subsequently renamed the European Union in 1993. (See my article on the EU in Mainstream, April 1, 2017) There is no doubt that a victory of Marine Le Pen of the Front Nationale with its anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and anti-EU agenda would have spelled disaster for the European Union. A Frexit (French exit from the EU) would have sucked the oxygen out of the organisation, perhaps paving the way for its progressive dissolution. Some would argue that the prospect of such a thing happening has not yet gone away altogether until the German elections (scheduled for September this year) confirm (as is expected) the return of Angela Merkel for an unprecedented fourth term. Today’s Germany is virtually the nerve-centre and the guardian angel of the European Union. Only Angela Merkel’s return to power can secure the future of the EU albeit with guarded optimism.

The sweeping victory of Emmanuel Macron (66.1 per cent) over Marine Le Pen (33.9 per cent) has been welcomed overwhelmingly not only in France and Europe (except for the hypocritical congratulatory messages from Donald Trump, Theresa May and Vladimir Putin who would love to destroy the EU) but also across progressive circles all over the world. It is a victory of liberalism, rationalism and tolerance (which seems to be in short supply these days) over xenophobic nationalism, racism and an attempt to turn back the clock of history. According to one writer, “This, after Britain’s dismal decision last year to leave the European Union, and in the face of Trump’s woeful anti-European ignorance, was critical.” (Roger Cohen, “French Election Verdict a Victory for Europe too”, The Times of India, May 9, 2017) In contrast to Le Pen’s ultranationalism and racism, Macron stands for a liberal tolerant society, as he stood by the refugees and Europe’s shared currency, the euro (Le Pen had promised to disengage France from euro and revive the French franc); Macron was brave enough to tell the French that they cannot turn their back on modernity and prosper.

However winning the presidency (though an unbelievable feat for a man whom no one knew before 2014, who founded his own party only a year ago and who was trailing in the third position in opinion polls only four months ago) is only half the story. According to experts, the hard part begins now. As a Centrist independent, Macron has blown away the political tradition of the Fifth French Republic (established by Charles De Gaulle in 1958) which always elected either a Centre-Right Republican or a Centre-Left Socialist as the President. His own party En Marche (Onward) is just a year old and he now faces the challenge of the parliamentary elections scheduled for June. Though France has a presidential system of government, the National Assembly (parliament) is also quite powerful and the President is dependent on its cooperation for approval of his legislative business.

These presidential elections were the first time that no candidate from the traditional parties (Centre-Left or Centre-Right) could make it to the second round. However, these parties are expected to put up a much better show in the parlia-mentary elections now that the spectre of a far Right presidency is out of the way. So the challenges for Macron are two fold. Either he ensures an absolute majority for his fledgling party (an uphill task given the time and organisational constraints) or he cuts a deal with like-minded groups in the National Assembly to pave the way for smooth governance. Some experts think that as a Centrist independent liberal Macron has a unique opportunity to create a niche for himself and his movement in French politics thus breaking the strangleholds of the traditional parties. But it is a fact that many voters voted for Macron not out of loyalty for him and his policies but out of fear for Le Pen. The number of abstentions or spoilt ballots in these elections was a record 16 million. If one adds to these figures the 11 million polled by Le Pen (as opposed to 21 million who voted for Macron) 27 million people did not vote for Macron.

So a clear majority of people did not support him in spite of the fear factor. Even after the election results were declared there were demonstrations by trade unionists against Macron’s proposed plans for labour reforms which would make the labour market more flexible making hiring and firing easier in order to make a dent into the unemployment situation (10 per cent; it is 25 per cent among the French youth). Any student of French politics would know that this issue will be a hard nut to crack. Also to be noted here is the fact that for the first time in French electoral history the far Right took more than a third of the vote (note the figures given above). Marine Le Pen has declared that with 33 per cent of the vote the Front Nationale is now the real opposition to mainstream French political establish-ment and she will be preparing for the next elections due in five years time. (Macron himself told a Left-wing news website: “If I fail to solve France’s problems or fail to offer a solid start to solving them, in five years it will be even worse. What nourishes the National Front will be even more virulent.”) Observers believe (confirmed in television interviews with ordinary voters) that this was a reflection of the anger in the country at lost jobs, failed immigrant integration, economic stagnation and above all the repeated terrorist attacks on France, specially in 2015 and 2016 which show no signs of abating any time soon.

Macron has a challenging job on his hand that he and the French nation can—like the Germans, the Dutch, the Swedes and the Danes—preserve the essence of their welfare state while implementing the labour market reforms he has in mind.

As mentioned, Macron’s victory, notwith-standing the domestic pitfals ahead of him, has breathed new life into the prospects of a revival of the EU and European idea through a renewed partnership between France and Germany, the real creators of today’s Europe. It has also demonstrated that France is not a country where racism and anti-European jingoism can triumph unlike in the US and the UK. The revival of the EU, however, will not be easy. The high idealism that gave birth to the European movement at the end of the Second World War can no longer be sustained if people across Europe find the EU to be a failure in delivering what matters most to them: jobs, housing, healthcare, education, social security, democratic accountability, a halt to environ-mental degradation, protection from terrorist attacks and, above all, a high quality of life.

The Rome Declaration of March 25, 2017 to commemorate 60 years of the EU adopted an ambitious agenda to revive the Union. (See my article in Mainstream, April 1, 2017 for a detailed analysis) It remains to be seen if it remains just a declaration like many previous ones without any meaningful will to implement it in practice or one which makes a real difference to people’s lives turning the EU into an instrument for peace, prosperity and security for all its citizens.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a former Professor and Head, Department of International Relations, and an erstwhile Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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