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Populism To Remain A Thorn In France’s Side Despite Macron’s Win – OpEd

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By Mohamed Chebaro *

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So-called dam or barricade voting has once again saved France from the far right. Europe has also been shielded from further inroads of populism, which continues to threaten to derail the whole European project and its tenets that have secured peace, stability and security on the continent since the end of the Second World War.

Emmanuel Macron’s subdued victory speech showed the scale of the threat, with the far right taking root in French society. Marine Le Pen persuaded more than 40 percent of French voters to support her, while an alarming 28 percent of the electorate abstained.

The story in France is no different to the rest of the Western world, where people seem to be more desperate, more impatient. They are bringing their political systems and their performance into question, often attaching themselves to fake dreams that have been polluting public opinion thanks to a digital arena that is free of any safeguards from trolls, toxic values and claims of easy fixes to state and society’s endemic and enduring problems.

The large backing for Le Pen shows that the far-right and populist style of politics has moved from the fringe into the French mainstream. June’s parliamentary elections could see this represented in the French legislature, which threatens to disrupt any plans Macron might have to redress and rebuild a divided and polarized France in his second term.

Overall, the Donald Trump style of populism might be in check for now, but for how long remains uncertain, since the factors that led to its emergence remain in play. These include the poor economic performance of major economies, which have been confounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, and now a war in Ukraine that could drag the world further into the red, with a higher cost of living rendering all rescue plans and financial injections near redundant.

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In addition, the erosion of public trust in politics continues to be rife in societies everywhere, raising further questions about the benefit of trusting a traditional political class that has put all its eggs in the corporate sector’s basket. Added to that is a rising skepticism about the values of globalization, which have manifested themselves to many as a vehicle for bringing in more migrants; more “others” closer to home, reinforcing basic human biases that border on intolerance and racism.

Against such a backdrop, Macron needs to have started campaigning yesterday to resuscitate the traditional parties with the aim of cementing a parliamentary majority that will allow him to reinforce the “dam” — a term used in France to refer to efforts by all on the left and right to deny the far right a chance to rule. It is crucial Macron succeeds if France wants to successfully ride the wave of populist politics on the one hand and to prove more inclusive and capable of underpinning the lost trust in mainstream politics on the other. The country does not want to wake up again in five years’ time and see yet more toxic candidates knocking on the doors of the Elysee Palace.

Populism might be the most basic form of anti-establishment protest. It is mostly an emotional feeling of injustice as a result of ills that have befallen individuals or groups due to a mixture of a perceived sense of economic alienation, social marginalization, an increased sense of cultural anxiety, fear of the other (such as migrants or religious or ethnic groups) and a false sense that globalization has destroyed local employment opportunities. Figures like Le Pen have posed as the nationalistic savior of the realm, using empty rhetoric and twisted truths to appeal to the most basic of fears about migrants, mainstream politicians or the wider world, while offering few if any any valid policies that might boost economic stagnation, control inflation, improve healthcare or decrease unemployment, to mention just a few of the perpetual challenges facing states and societies today.

Campaigning with all the above in mind, Le Pen — channeling the rhetoric of similar figures like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in the UK and Trump in the US — vowed to keep up the fight to put “France first.” She softened her stance compared to the former National Front’s anti-Semitic, anti-Islam approach. Le Pen downplayed her calls to ban the hijab in public, but pledged to end some foreigners’ social benefits and to deport non-citizens who have not worked for a year.

All this points to the troubles President Macron will face during his second term in office. He will have a mountain to climb in terms of finding answers through well-designed policies that meet the aspirations of a polarized society. One could even argue that an economic downturn and a few broken promises will see the far right win more support, not less, as the French are living in a more volatile society since Macron and Le Pen neutralized the normal political structure of left and right.

Europe rushed to congratulate Macron on his win, but adversities lie ahead for the EU project. Hence, I would expect to see a poor long-term outlook for France and Western democracy as a whole unless governments urgently acknowledge that maybe economic success is no longer the only aspect of politics that echoes with the electorate.

Issues like social justice, the environment and questions of race, religion and gender must be given more attention if France, the EU and the Western world are to survive the bigoted approach and conflictive, empty rhetoric of most populist mantras, which are plaguing societies and making them sleepwalk toward dire times.

  • Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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