Published On: Mon, May 15th, 2017

Neither right nor left, but what?

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By Yossi Mekelberg

A big sigh of relief could be heard across Europe and beyond at the announcement of the resounding victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential elections. It was more a sense of reprieve that National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen failed to even come close to winning, than a ringing endorsement of Macron, an unknown quantity. Le Pen’s 33.9 percent of the vote compared to Macron’s 66.1 percent is a decisive victory for the latter.

But it is the highest proportion of the vote the FN has ever gained in elections. Considering Le Pen’s vile anti-immigration, Islamophobic, anti-EU platform, and denial of the role the French played in the Holocaust, it is terrifying that a third of those who voted saw her fit to be their next president, especially in a country that more than two centuries ago enshrined the values of liberty, equality and fraternity as its long-lasting creed.

When it mattered most, French voters pulled back from the brink and opted for the new and somewhat idiosyncratic Macron. But the election results can be deceiving and spell trouble ahead for France and consequently for Europe. The turnout was the lowest in the second round since 1969, yet 74 percent is not that low a figure. It is not even catastrophic that more voters than usual stayed away because neither candidate captured their imagination.

The real danger arises if the lower turnout derives from growing and lasting disillusionment with the political system as a whole. This reflects a wider malaise across Europe, which saw the rise of ultra-nationalist movements, and in certain cases their ascendency to power. Receiving such a substantial chunk of the popular vote in France — bigger than ever — contributes to the legitimization of the nauseating ideology that the FN stands for.

For now, France managed to reject with a single vote both the establishment, by voting for a candidate from a party that barely exists, and ultra-nationalism, which threatened to tear apart both France and the EU. It gives a ray of optimism to those who feared that after Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as US president, the fall of Paris to Le Pen would be the final nail in the coffin of the post-World War II order.

Her pledges to return to the franc and hold a referendum to leave the EU within six months of entering the Elysee Palace would have dealt a mortal blow to the euro zone and potentially the entire European project. In her unabated ultra-nationalism, she rejects every supranational organization, including NATO, which she called “a threat to national independence.”

Macron, the smooth former banker and finance minister, ran a highly sophisticated election campaign. He managed to distance himself from both the traditional right and left, and from the entire political establishment, though his resume screams establishment. He fuels a feel-good factor that has not been present in a European country for a while.

His choice of celebrating his victory walking into the Louvre museum’s courtyard to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the EU anthem, and not the French national anthem was a powerful declaration of intention. Winning the election may prove easier for the novice president than leading the country, which is deeply divided along social and political fault lines. His big victory will not resolve overnight the high levels of unemployment or ethnic-religious tensions, part of which have disturbingly manifested in acts of terrorism. The very close spread of the vote in the first round between the four leading candidates demonstrated the deep divisions.

It is for Macron to convince those for whom he was not their first choice that he can heal these wounds. He has to do it while building a political base, as his party is mainly a virtual one with no seat in the National Assembly, at least until the legislative elections next month. The success or failure of his Republic on the Move party will determine his ability to provide France with a clearer direction, assuming he has one.

Macron will give himself a great chance to become a successful president if he is able to give some concrete substance to his campaign slogan “neither left not right.” It tells us more what he is not than what he is. His support of globalization and social inclusion, and his pro-European platform, are a refreshing change from the antithetic approach that creeped in and threatens to get a hold on European politics.

Unlike his political rivals, Macron was elected based on a promise, with no past misdemeanors to haunt him. All this will count for very little if he does not use this unique opportunity to demonstrate that there is a politician of substance behind the charming and charismatic campaigner. His immediate and urgent task is to contain, if not completely reverse, the torrent of national chauvinism that threatens France and the rest of the continent.

–(Courtesy–Arab News)


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