By: Matthew Brewer
The European project has suffered a seemingly endless string of body blows from far-right movements across the continent over the last several years. The blatant illiberal tendencies in the East have been followed by a parade of far-right, nationalist parties in the very heart of Europe seeking to dismember the European Union in the name of protectionism and xenophobia. These efforts have until now been pushed back either barely, at great cost, or not at all.
The latest act in European liberalism’s political self-immolation is the upcoming first round of the French Presidential election, scheduled for April 23. A month ago, the contest had been merely a close race between the unusually religious, traditional conservative Francois Fillon, and “France’s Trump,” the polished, anti-immigrant populist Marine Le Pen. It has since become a nail-bitingly close, four-man race between Mr. Fillon, Ms. Le Pen, center-left independent Emmanuel Macron, and far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon. Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron are currently neck and neck, polling at 22.5 and 23 percent respectively, while Mr. Fillon, who has experienced a mini-resurgence following a debilitating scandal, has clung to third place with 19.5 percent.
However, European political observers have begun hyperventilating about a late, sudden surge in support for Mr. Melenchon, who has gained four points in the last week, bringing his vote share to 19 percent. Mr. Melenchon, who appears at rallies as a hologram and features in an online video game in which the player assaults bankers and IMF Chief Christine Lagarde, holds positions that would make American Liberal darling Bernie Sanders blush.
Mr. Melenchon has, among other things, called for France to “renegotiate” its membership in the European Union and would impose a 100 percent tax on incomes above $425,000 per year. Mr. Melenchon represents just as dire a threat to the European Union as Ms. Le Pen, albeit in a quirky, leftist package. Mr. Melenchon’s economic policies are no less disastrous and his vision no less nationalistic than that of Le Pen’s “Economic Patriotism,” and both have similarly expressed admiration for anti-democratic strongmen including Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin. However, with one important caveat, uneasy Europhiles can rest easy that Mr. Melenchon will not become the next President of France. Despite surging support for the far-left, French voters historically move towards the middle in the second round of voting, naturally favoring centrist candidates like Mr. Macron and Mr. Fillon.
However, for French voters to move towards the center, there must be a centrist candidate in the second-round ballot. Therein lies the possibility that has fundamentally upended Euro-watchers’ confidence to such a degree that Euro options have plummeted to even lower levels than during the Greek sovereign debt crisis or the run-up to Brexit: should Mr. Melenchon continue surging, it could theoretically result in a second-round runoff between Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Melenchon, essentially offering French voters, and Europe by extension, a lose-lose choice between isolationism and protectionism.
The ramifications for Europe would be profound and likely crippling, as both Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Melenchon have essentially promised to seek “Frexit.” France’s departure from the European Union would be far more debilitating than the departure of the UK, as the UK was always, at best, a grudging member, which attempted to slow the progress of European integration wherever it suited their interests. France, by contrast, was one of the founding members of the European Union, indeed the founding member alongside Germany, and has historically been one of the strongest proponents of increased European integration, viewing it as an avenue to asserting French leadership globally.
By contrast, the German election features former European Parliament President Martin Schulz’s center-left SPD in a competitive race with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU. Mr. Schulz, an ardent Europhile, and Ms. Merkel, with her long history standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are the polar opposites of Mr. Melenchon and Ms. Le Pen, and both have struck a defiantly pro-European tone. Mr. Schulz and Ms. Merkel’s principled centrism has succeeded to such a degree that Frauke Petry, the standard-bearer for Germany’s far-right, anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD), declined to run for Chancellor as her party implodes amid internal divisions. Even as Germany moves to isolate nationalist and isolationist forces in its politics, France is flirting with the abyss.
While the risk may be great, the odds remain in favor of Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron proceeding to a second-round ballot, in which Mr. Macron is heavily favored. Overreacting to the threat Ms. Le Pen represents in the face of the fraught final week of the election could itself present great risks for Europe, as the Netherlands discovered when, facing an unprecedented threat from Geert Wilders, an anti-immigrant politician so rhetorically extreme he was fined for hate speech over comments made during a campaign rally, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte adopted many of Wilders’ anti-immigrant positions to steal support and claim a Pyrrhic victory. This is precisely the wrong way to combat far-right and, as the French election has demonstrated, far-left nationalism.
Emmanuel Macron’s campaign has offered a center-left vision for France distinct from that of the moribund Socialist Party, incorporating a relaxation of French tax rates and a renegotiation of the French welfare state, while maintaining its pillars alongside a robustly liberal social platform. Mr. Macron has maintained his commitment to the continued acceptance of immigrants and asylum seekers and has rejected any ban on the hijab for university students, which Ms. Le Pen would see extended to all of France. Mr. Macron has the potential to demonstrate that it is still possible to show compassion for the outside world and win an election with a coherent blend of economic and social policies. The stakes for Mr. Macron’s worldview are high, however, as a victory for the far-right in France would represent a crushing blow to the European project, effectively achieving Ms. Le Pen’s “domino effect” in one fell swoop.
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen demonstrated the right way to combat insurgent far-right and nationalist parties last year, but his victory was marred by procedural wrangling, long delays, and the need for a second ballot. Mr. Macron has the chance to decisively defeat Ms. Le Pen’s worldview in France in the first clean win for the Western liberal-democratic order in far too long.
Matthew Brewer holds a Master’s Degree in European Studies and International Economics from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a degree in German Studies from Oberlin College. He is currently Director of Global Policy Development at Sorini, Samet & Associates where he covers issues including global political developments, trade, and tax policy.
Photo by: Gilbert-Noël Sfeir Mont-Liban