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Le Pen's Loss - The Forward March Of Populism Halted?

08/05/2017 12:29 PM IST | Updated 08/05/2017 1:20 PM IST
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France president election 2017

65:35. The margin of victory for Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election. Not the political earthquake that some had envisaged happening in the wake of those often conflated phenomena - Brexit and Trump. Macron's radicalism served to counteract the seemingly nascent 'rise and rise' of populism. But there was one difference, one thing that made this election more than just a repeat of Jean-Marie Le Pen's crushing defeat in 2002, that was the notable absence of main party candidates from the final round. France rejected populism emphatically, but it also rejected the establishment. Both these facts must be remembered, especially when we attempt to lambast a prostrate Front Nationale.

It was wrongly assumed that populism the tidal wave would simply engulf continental Europe in the same way as it appeared to envelope Britain and America. That somehow genuine fascists like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen would sneak victories under some semblance of a populist pennant. They didn't. Clearly the European Union is not going to collapse like a weary titan, staggering under the too vast orb of its fate. Nor will the entirety of Europe simply melt in some furnace of populism. The failure of Le Pen suggests voters are not going to blindly wed themselves to populist causes.

Arguably, populism climaxed with Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump. I however would say that it's too easy to see the two as somehow coterminous in terms of political events. The shock came when Trump won the nomination: after that it simply became a red versus blue fight in which, it must be remembered, blue got more votes.

Still, the scale of Le Pen's defeat is significant. Brexit won with 52% of the vote; Trump on around 48%; Norbert Hofer's Freedom Party lost the Austrian presidential election by a few thousand votes, and even Wilders gained ground. Le Pen however was well and truly repudiated by the French electorate. Candidates who seemingly espouse genuinely fascist world-views have been given the metaphorical boot. The results in France, as well as Holland, would suggest that the core of the European Union is to an extent immune from populists (or fascists masquerading as populists).

All this would seem to point to an easy win for either Angela Merkel's CDU or Martin Schulz's SPD in the German election. The AfD will not get a look in in Germany's election. 2017 in Europe will not be akin to 1848, 1918 or 1989 in its political significance. What I think we will see is a form of retrenchment in the face of Brexit and its attendant uncertainties. Conversely, the EU will strengthen, with a common cause and common challenge in Brexit and minimising its fallout for the rest of the bloc. It is Brexit that in many ways has actually burnished the bonds between continental countries and galvanised the group which remains. Names like Hofer, Wilders and Le Pen will become metaphorical carcasses in the history books documenting populism. Something I believe that is surely for the best.

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