By Martin Williams-8 MAY 2017
Emmanuel Macron’s French presidency win has been hailed as a victory against the “populist revolution,” that was behind Brexit and Donald Trump. The pro-EU centrist easily defeated Marine Le Pen, of the far-right Front National.
The Guardian said his win was “a welcome remedy to the populist fever,” while the Reuters said that populism “may have faded on the shores of France”.
It comes as some commentators have declared Ukip “dead”, after it took a hammering in last week’s local elections.
So should the liberal establishment be breathing a sigh of relief after a turbulent year? Let’s dig into the detail a little deeper.
How decisive is Macron’s victory?
On the surface, he won a landslide. Macron won 66 per cent, against Le Pen’s 34 per cent. But the full election data paints a more complicated picture.
Turnout was the lowest for decades, with almost a quarter of registered voters abstaining. That compared to a fifth of voters who abstained in the last election, and just 16 per cent in 2007.
What’s more, of those who voted, around 12 per cent (four million people) spoiled their ballot papers or left it blank.
That means, out of everyone who was registered to vote, Macron only managed a victory of 43.75 per cent. That would be impressive by British standards – in 2015, only 24 per cent of those registered voted Conservative. But in France, this is a poor result. Compare it to ten years ago, when Nicolas Sarkozy won with around 54 per cent of registered voters, or Hollande who got 52 per cent in 2012.
What’s more, Macron was helped greatly by anti-Le Pen sentiment. Many who would never count themselves as supporters voted for him in order to keep the far-right candidate out. His vote share in the first round of elections was just 24 per cent.
So although Le Pen’s National Front has been defeated for now, it’s a stretch to say that Macron’s election represents a glowing endorsement of him, or the more liberal, pro-EU establishment.
Populism across Europe
There is nothing inherently controversial about populism. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it simply as “political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want”.
But it is the particular strain of nationalist, right-wing populism that has disturbed establishment politics so much recently, pushing forward policies against immigration and globalisation. And many of the issues that politicians like Le Pen and Trump campaign on remain unchanged.
We need to be careful, however, not to lump everything in together. They may be part of the same wave of populism, but anti-EU policies are, of course, very different from extremist parties like Le Pen’s, with its former leader convicted as a racist.
Across Europe, populist parties of different types have seen their support strengthen. According to a Harvard research paper, they have more than doubled their average share of the vote since the 1960s.
In January, leaders from far-right and anti-EU parties gathered in Germany to “outline the Europe of tomorrow”. They included Le Pen, Frauke Petry of the AfD party in Germany, and Geert Wilders who was once dubbed the “Dutch Trump”.
Wilders was soon after defeated in the his country’s parliamentary elections, after winning just 13% of the vote.
Elsewhere, Austria’s far-right Freedom Party was also defeated in December. But they did incredibly well. The party’s presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer, won the first round of voting and only lost the final found by around 7 percentage points.
The next major test for Europe will be the German elections in September, where the established parties will hope to quash opposition from the AfD. The party was only founded in 2013 but has quickly risen in popularity by opposing Angela Merkel’s refugee policy.
Reports say the party is being “flooded by the far far right” but has recently suffered a big slump in support after controversial comments made by one of the party’s leaders.
The election of Macron shows that established politics still has a stronghold over Europe. The switching of allegiances among many voters, to ensure Le Pen was defeated, is a reflection of how deeply unpopular the Front National is among most voters.
But it’s far too early to declare the end to the wave of populism. And, so long as the perceived factors that drive populism stay the same (whether economic, cultural, political or social), it seems likely that populist leaders will find it easy to drum up support.
Macron may have blocked the populist far-right, but he has not yet provided a solution to counter it. Just days before his election, UKIP leader Nigel Farage predicted: ”If Le Pen does not win this Sunday, she will become the French president in 2022.”