When Emmanuel Macron won an emphatic victory in the French presidential election the other week, the entire liberal establishment of Europe breathed a sigh of relief. If the Austrian presidential and the Dutch parliamentary elections hinted that we may have hit peak nationalist populism in the West, Macron’s victory seems like a decisive turnaround. We still have the German election coming up in the autumn, but the risks there seem minimal. The most likely scenario there is that Merkel wins the Chancellorship again – not a bad outcome. An unlikely victory for the SPD’s Martin Schultz, the main contender, would make Macron’s proposed European renewal and resurgence even more probable.
At least, this is the optimistic scenario for the future of liberal democracy in the West. And there are reasons to be optimistic. Perversely, the main reason to be optimistic is, in fact, Macron’s popularity – or to be more specific, lack thereof.
There is no doubt that his movement, France en Marche, was driven by a large cadre of true believers. Among the educated urban classes, Macron’s mix of social liberalism and economic centrism is wildly popular, just as it was for Tony Blair in Britain two decades ago. But in France, just as in Britain today, that demographic is decidedly a minority. It continues to be disproportionally influential, but there as here, its influence is waning. Many, if not the majority, of people who voted for Macron did not do so out of enthusiasm for his policy positions. They did so holding their noses.
And that is extremely good news. In Britain, some would argue that brand of liberalism, bolstered by the man’s personal popularity, was tarnished by Blair’s failures over Iraq. The backlash from some in the Labour party against it has been overly aggressive. But in France, people largely did not vote for Macron, or for his brand of liberalism. They voted for the moral soul of the French Republic. The decision before them was whether they stood for the liberal, democratic Republic they grew up in, or whether they preferred a populist system with a leader in the mould of Putin, Trump or Erdogan. And they have voted emphatically in favour of the Republic.
Don’t get too comfortable
With Macron, European liberal democracy at least has a credible analysis of what has gone wrong over the past decade and an injection of energy towards creating solid solutions.Dr. Azeem Ibrahim