Although some have anointed Germany's Angela Merkel the new “leader of the free world,” she's been preoccupied with shoring up a weak coalition government and stanching defections from her conservative base to the far-right Alternative for Germany ...and more »
Europe’s most dynamic political leader, Emmanuel Macron, pays a state visit to Washington this week. The French president has struck up a surprisingly cordial relationship with President Donald Trump, especially when you consider that Macron has emerged as the West’s most formidable opponent of the kind of populist nationalism Trump channels here.
Speaking last week to the European Parliament, Macron warned of a “European civil war” and urged the European Union to defend liberal democracy against a surging tide of illiberal nationalism. “Faced with the authoritarianism that surrounds us everywhere, the answer is not authoritarian democracy, but the authority of democracy,” he declared.
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The JFK-style antithesis was a reminder that U.S. presidents used to give stirring speeches like this in Europe. But that’s not happening today because Trump identifies more with the other side—with right-wing nativists and neo-nationalists who want to keep immigrants out; raise barriers to global commerce; weaken or leave the EU to protect “national sovereignty;” and, especially in Eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland, undermine internal checks on strongman rule.
In effect, Macron has stepped audaciously into the vacuum created by Trump’s abdication of America’s historic role as keeper of the liberal democratic flame. Although some have anointed Germany’s Angela Merkel the new “leader of the free world,” she’s been preoccupied with shoring up a weak coalition government and stanching defections from her conservative base to the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
In addition to being Trump’s ideological opposite, Macron can be viewed as something of a beacon for progressives hoping to find their way back to the halls of power across the democratic world. As a progressive, young outsider who rode a wave of voter revolt against the governing establishment, Macron managed to capture the populist’s insurgent spirit without embracing their reactionary demands. That, in a nutshell, is the task facing other progressive parties as they struggle to expand their popular appeal.
Across Western democracies, the populist/nationalist tide has submerged the old left-right axis and carved out new political fault lines based on education, ethnicity and geography; it pits an aging white working class—many of whom supported progressive parties in the past—and cultural traditionalists in the countryside against newcomers, cosmopolitan elites and the young, who feel at home in a borderless, multicultural world.
Center-right parties throughout Europe have weathered the revolt by co-opting some of the nationalists’ demands. Britain’s Conservatives put Brexit to a popular vote to undercut the rising appeal of the anti-immigration and anti-Europe UK Independence Party; UKIP collapsed and Britain is leaving the EU. In Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, ultranationalists have come to power by promising to defend what Hungarian President Viktor Orban calls their “cultural homogeneity” against “mass migration” and refugees, even though relatively few have made their way to Eastern Europe. The Czech prime minister, billionaire Andrej Babis, proudly calls himself the “Czech Donald Trump.” And even Germany’s mildly conservative Merkel is calling for limits on refugees following the far-right’s shocking gains last year.
These populist gains have come mostly at progressives’ expense.
In March, Italy’s incumbent center-left Democrats won a mere 19 percent of seats in Parliament despite presiding over a modest economic rebound. Germany’s Social Democrats, after a poor electoral showing in September, have again joined Merkel’s governing coalition as junior partners. Last March, the Dutch Labor Party was all but wiped out, dropping from the second-largest party in Parliament to the seventh. Then there’s the baffling case of Britain’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, which seems to be marching back in time to a socialist Stonehenge and resigning itself to a strategy of regaining power only by waiting for people to tire of the Tories and turn to them by default.
Across the U.S., many Democrats seem to have the same idea. Following big off-year victories in Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania, and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s decision to pack it in, Democrats are positively giddy about the prospects for riding Trump’s low approval ratings and their own motivated base to big gains in this fall’s midterm elections.
But Democrats face a structural problem: over the past decade, their base has narrowed both geographically and demographically. It’s true that Trump is the great unifier, if only of Democrats. Unity in resistance, however, doesn’t matter if your base isn’t big enough to win elections.
What’s sorely missing—both in the U.S. and throughout Europe—is a genuinely progressive alternative to populism. Saddled with shopworn ideas and unable to offer voters a hopeful and forward-looking counterpoint to today’s splenetic and vengeful populism, center-left parties are sliding into irrelevance.
Macron appears to be the great exception to this baleful trend. He grasped that neither of France’s dominant parties—his own Socialists, or the center-right Republicans—were strong enough to withstand the populist gale alone. So in the midst of a national election he formed an entirely new party, La République en Marche, which cannibalized the more pragmatic elements of both the Socialists and the center-right Republicans.
Challenging the status quo from what Macron calls the “radical center” was a breathtaking political gamble. He got lucky when a corruption scandal brought down his main center-right rival. In any event, Macron went on to defeat both Marine le Pen, leader of the far-right populist National Front, and ultraleft demagogue Jean-Luc Melenchon in the second round of presidential voting. Astonishingly,En Marche subsequently won 308 of the 577 seats in the lower house of Parliament.
France’s Socialists imploded, polling just 6 percent in the presidential contest, and losing 90 percent of their seats in Parliament. The Republicans fared somewhat better, but still lost 40 percent of their seats. Rebuffed yet again by French voters, the National Front has rebranded itself “National Rally” in an effort to shed its anti-Semitic baggage, and has backed way from its promise to pull France out of the eurozone.
For now, at least, Macron hasn’t just won an election, he’s realigned French politics.
How did he do it? I put that question to top Macron advisers and En Marche members during a recent visit to Paris. They emphasized the radical challenge Macron poses to France’s insular and petrified political establishment. The Macronistas regard him not as a centrist in the sense of lying between the mainstream parties, but as outsider come to revivify France’s distinctive political and cultural traditions. His governing philosophy is purposefully elusive, borrowing ideas from the left and right. As a key adviser explained it, the Macron agenda is to “protect and liberate”—to buffer people against the vicissitudes of markets while taking long overdue steps to liberalize France’s economy.
Macron knows his first and most important task is to break with a stultified governing class and political economy that has produced the same result—economic stagnation—regardless of whether the center-right or center-left is in power. He’s widely seen as France’s last bastion against the populist-nationalist revolt. After Macron (should he fail), le deluge.
Over the past three decades, France has been a laggard in EU growth. Unemployment has been stuck at around 10 percent—and close to 25 percent for immigrants and the young, who have a hard time cracking France’s rigid labor markets. In the name of égalité, France has achieved something like the opposite: growing poverty and a two-tiered labor market consisting of workers “protected” by a thick carapace of laws and vulnerable workers on temporary job contracts.
Macron immediately pushed through labor market reforms that make it easier to fire workers, limit wrongful-dismissal suits and awards, and allow labor negotiations to take place at the firm level rather than industry-wide. He’s advocating changes in unemployment insurance and working to merge France’s 37 separate retirement systems into a single universal system. Macron’s energy and decisiveness, his advisers believe, reinforce the impression that he is not a typical politician, but a young man in a hurry (he just turned 40) who actually delivers on his promises.
The Macron mystique now faces its sternest test. France’s rail unions have launched intermittent strikes to protest a Macron-backed law that ends the state’s monopoly on passenger rail, as well as jobs for life and early retirement for new hires.
“This is a defining moment for Macron,” says veteran French journalist Pierre Haski, noting that rail strikes derailed the last serious attempt to reform labor markets by a center-right government in 1995. This time, however, Macron has the solid backing of Parliament and of the French public, 61 percent of whom want the government to go ahead with the reforms.
Meanwhile, Macron’s ambitious plans to strengthen the eurozone are meeting resistance in Europe. During the French election, Macron pointedly refused to bend to the prevailing winds of Euroskepticism blowing across the continent. On the contrary, he’s pushing for even deeper integration of eurozone economies, including creating a new post of finance minister, a joint budget for investment, harmonization of national business tax rates and even a separate eurozone Parliament. The idea is to put the eurozone on a par with the U.S. and Chinese behemoths. Among young people in France, “Macron has made Europe cool again,” says Lena Morozo of EuropaNova, a Paris think tank.
Germany, however, is notably cool to Macron’s package of reforms, and a group of small northern European countries has objected as well. Macron’s characteristically bold response is to bypass officialdom and take his case directly to European voters during next year’s elections for the EU Parliament. He’ll likely rely on the same social media wizardry his aides say helped them to field candidates for the LREM in last year’s parliamentary elections.
Ultimately, Macron wants France to take its place alongside Germany as the dual-core driver of a united Europe. “France has a voice and a role to play,” Macron has said. “But this role cannot be played and your voice is not even listened to, if you don’t perform at home.”
High on Macron’s agenda for this week’s talks with Trump is climate change. After Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, Macron puckishly called for “making our planet great again.” Aides describe him as “determined” to draw Washington back into global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The same determination was evident in Macron’s approach to Syria. France joined the United States and U.K. in bombing chemical weapons facilities in Syria. “We had reached a point where these strikes were necessary to give back the international community some credibility,” Macron said in response to criticism from Le Pen and Melenchon. “When you fix red lines, if you don’t know how to make sure they are respected, you’re choosing to be weak.”
In recent days, Macron claimed to talk Trump into reversing his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. The White House subsequently denied that was the case. Nonetheless, it’s clear that despite his evident rapport with Trump, Macron is not shy about pushing back against the U.S. president’s aggressive unilateralism on all fronts. Students of Franco-American relations will savor the irony of a French president being more deeply committed than an American president to preserving Western unity.
Finally, Macron understands the power of grand narratives in forging consensus in diverse, liberal societies. “Post-modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to our democracy,” he told Der Spiegel in October, “because it destroyed the idea of a convincing national myth, and with it the possibility of a feeling of national unity and purpose.”
Macron’s inspirational narrative stresses a reinvigoration of his country’s republican principles, rooted in the liberal ethos of the European Enlightenment, to create a strong France worthy of leading a strong Europe.
The national populists are offering an alternative myth of their own: That of ordinary working people betrayed by elites, victimized by globalization, imperiled by immigrants, threatened by multiculturalism and losing their national and cultural identity.
Languishing out of power almost everywhere, progressives urgently need a coherent and optimistic account of the future they want to build. Instead of flirting with left-wing populism, they’d be better off embracing Macron’s call for a new radicalism of the liberal democratic center. “Why can't there be such a thing as democratic heroism?” Macron asked rhetorically in his Der Spiegel interview. “Perhaps exactly that is our task: rediscovering something like that together for the 21st century.”
If progressives hope to regain the ground they’ve lost in the dark years of the recent past, they ought to live up to their name, and make themselves parties of hope and progress. That’s the best riposte to populist scapegoating and panaceas, and the best way to bring new voters into the fold.
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Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
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