Just months after Donald Trump took power in the United States and the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the French election has yielded a clear victory for the moderate centre-left. Has this stopped the so-called “populist wave”?
So said Emmanuel Macron as he took the podium on Sunday night to announce his triumph. Voilà indeed. After months of speculation and hysteria, with predictions of an upset that would propel the far-right extremist Marine le Pen to first place, Macron had pulled ahead to secure a two-point lead and a place in the second round of the French presidential election, due to be held in two weeks’ time.
In an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, with nationalist populist movements on the rise in every country in Europe, Macron’s campaign seemed almost brazen in its commitment to the European Union, to openness and globalisation, and to a centrist politics that many commentators had already declared dead. In the beginning, it was easy to accuse him of being an upstart outsider with no background in politics and an idealistic agenda that ignored the anti-establishment anger coursing through the West. Now, as he heads into a run-off election that he is sure to win, these criticisms have proved wrong. Macron’s bold strategic move – to stand up to populist nationalism and confront it directly, rather than scramble to make concessions in its favour – has paid off.
Since the world woke up to the reality of a Trump administration on 9 November 2016, a sense of impending doom has set in. Predictions have been made of the end of Western civilisation as we know it, of the collapse of the liberal order, of the halt of globalisation, and of a right-wing uprising across Europe. The success of the Brexit campaign appeared to confirm these suspicions, triggering a sense of low-grade panic almost everywhere. It seemed that a domino effect was in motion, with nobody standing in its way.
After Mark Rutte’s victory in the Netherlands and Macron’s success in France, however – and with the upcoming German election currently a two-way race between a centrist and a social democrat – the panic is subsiding. As always, our ability to make accurate predictions of social phenomena is clouded in part by fear and in part by a “confirmation bias”, or the tendency to interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs. After just two instances of surprising populist victories in London and Washington D.C., many jumped to crude generalisations of the West as a whole. Now that the dust has cleared somewhat and the populist track has been paused, it is necessary to re-evaluate these positions once more.
Take France, the UK and the USA as examples. Clearly, there are significant differences between recent election results in the three countries. In France, the far-right underperformed and the centre is poised for a resounding win. In the UK, a populist insurrection led to a referendum upset, but also cemented the position of a mainstream conservative party. In the USA, a radical outsider won the Presidency, but turned the establishment parties upside down.
While these now seem so different as to be incomparable, there is one common thread that runs through all of them, and seems a fair generalisation, the victor was propelled by a desire for change, rather than stability or continuity. Trump ran an insurgent campaign based on policies and promises that departed radically from the status quo. British voters chose a major risk over a known quantity. And in France, although Macron is a moderate centrist in his policy and outlook, the electorate rejected both establishment parties (the Socialists, led by Benoît Hamon, and the Republicans, led by François Fillon) and instead sent two complete outsiders to the run-off.
In these instances, change took different forms and directions, assumed different ideological hues and had vastly different outcomes. But it was change nonetheless.
This, of course, is the crux of the matter. The mistake of many commentators was to conflate anti-establishment anger with populist nationalism, and on that basis to predict a right-wing, anti-immigration, anti-globalisation wave across the West. Instead, it appears that anger at the status quo has a much wider range of outlets. Voters who are disillusioned with traditional institutions and the status quo do not necessarily share a hatred of immigrants or free trade. While they have shown an unprecedented appetite for risk, they have not displayed any predictable shared ideological orientation.
It is too easy to conclude either that recent events in Western liberal democracies are inter-related or that they are unrelated completely. The truth lies somewhere in-between. In a world that is increasingly connected by the internet and social media, it goes without saying that events in one part of the globe reach – and thus have some effect on – other societies. But this does not obscure or eradicate the very real differences that remain between countries and across borders.
It is not a wave of populist nationalism that is sweeping the West – instead, it is an appetite for change, and change in many forms. The work of astute leaders now is to channel that energy in positive directions, and steer it away from destructive ones. If there is one thing for sure, it is that traditional establishment politics are not the answer. The old vocabulary of “left” and “right” is becoming irrelevant, and a new lexicon of “new” and “old”, “open” and “closed” will take its place.
At this point, an adjustment to the French adage is perhaps needed:
Plus ça change, plus ça change. DM
Saul Musker is the Machel-Mandela Fellow at the Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg. He is also a Rhodes Scholar and a student of international relations, and will pursue graduate studies at the University of Oxford in 2017. He is a winner of the Deon Hofmeyr Prize for Poetry, and his first novel was shortlisted for the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. He writes in his personal capacity.