Macron boosts hopes of turn in populist tide

Frank Zeller –

The election victory of French pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron has raised hopes among liberal democrats that the populist and anti-globalisation juggernaut behind Brexit and Donald Trump is losing momentum.
Some even hailed Macron’s defeat of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen as “three-nil” after moderate politicians also beat extremists in Austria and the Netherlands in recent months.
For them, Macron’s victory brought badly needed relief after last year’s shock results in Britain and the United States, widely seen as revolts against “establishment” candidates and institutions.
While Trump has vowed to put “America first”, curtail immigration and free trade, and Britain has turned its back on the EU, Macron has pledged economic reforms for a France at the heart of the European project.
In Europe’s other big election this year, the German vote in September, centre-right Chancellor Angela Merkel is leading in the polls while the fringe anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is losing steam.
“After Brexit and Trump’s victory, the Western world and Europe have been spared another political earthquake,” said German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, adding that Europe had dodged the “nightmare” of a far-right leader in the Elysee Palace.
The New York Times said France, like the United States, Britain and other major democracies, faced the challenge of “many people feeling marginalised by globalisation, economic stagnation, an unresponsive government, unemployment, faceless terrorism and a tide of immigrants”.
However the newspaper, which has been at the forefront of critical coverage of the Trump presidency, said French voters had opted for a “future in Europe rather than in resentful isolation” and delivered “a victory of hope and optimism over fear and reaction”.
Eurosceptics have been on the rise on a continent badly rattled by the eurozone debt crisis and the mass refugee influx that peaked in 2015 and angered eastern EU members on the ‘Balkans route’.
In Poland, the right-wing and anti-EU Law and Justice party took power in 2015, while in Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban has openly sparred with Brussels.
Last June came the stunning Brexit vote, while in Austria a far-right candidate was only narrowly beaten for the presidency.
Europe’s right-wing populists, from Le Pen to Germany’s AfD, were further emboldened by Trump’s victory in November.
However, the tide appears to have turned this year, starting with the defeat in March in the Netherlands of anti-Islam candidate Geert Wilders.
After Macron’s win, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, tweeted: “Kick off … Austria. Quarter-final: Stable Netherlands. Semi-final: La France en Marche!”
If the final is the German election, Merkel also has cause for optimism.
Her party scored another strong victory in state elections Sunday, while the anti-migrant, anti-Islam and eurosceptic AfD, riven by infighting, has badly slipped in the polls.
The head of the small, liberal FDP party, Christian Lindner, said “after 2016 was the year when populists, over-simplifiers and extremists celebrated success, 2017 is the year of the moderate forces”.
Many, however, warned it was too early to claim victory for centrist politics.