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Europe's far-right dangers remain

A bullet was dodged with Macron's victory, but it is not yet over for Europe's neo-fascists

The outpouring of international relief over the French far right failing to seize the presidency said a lot about the febrile nature of modern Western politics.

Europe has dodged a bullet, and Mr Emmanuel Macron's victory is - in the broader sense, at least - a sign of the strength of the liberal status quo.

It is a reminder of the philosophical mountain Europe's far right must climb - in many respects a tougher challenge than that faced by US President Donald Trump or those who wanted Brexit in Britain.

Memories of World War II may be slipping from living memory in mainland Europe, but the shadow they cast remains long.

Ms Marine Le Pen and her National Front enjoyed the most supportive environment any European extremist party has seen since the war - a stuttering economy, frustration over migration, a string of militant attacks and what looks like Moscow's not-so-subtle support.

Even with all that, they suffered a savage defeat.

The result came after disappointing performances for the far-right in Austria's December presidential vote and the Dutch elections in March. Germany's Alternative for Germany also looks set to underperform in September's federal elections.

Still, Europe's far right is now part of the political mainstream.

Ms Le Pen won 35 per cent of the popular vote, almost twice the 17 per cent gained by her father in 2002 - the previous high-water mark of the National Front's performance in France.

In 2002, the fact that the far right made the second round of the election at all was a matter of considerable shock across France and the rest of Europe.

This time, no one was surprised when it finished second in the first round.

For now, the assumption must be that the far right is likely to again make the second round in five years. If Mr Macron disappoints, Ms Le Pen might win in 2022.

Mr Macron and other mainstream leaders will have to do more than look better than the neo-fascists - they will have to offer a credible vision of what a democratic, open and not extremist continent looks like.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to be the best example of such a leader, now seen as likely to win her own election later this year.

In part as a result, right-wing parties have increasingly found themselves making Europe's political weather.

We have seen from Britain how a fringe group such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) can end up having phenomenal influence on national policy without ever coming close to government.

POPULIST APPROACHES

In mainland Europe, there are signs that the far right is prompting other more mainstream parties to take up more populist approaches.

We got a taste of what that meant in the French campaign. In his bid for the Republican nomination, former president Nicolas Sarkozy swerved dramatically to the right.

That did not work for him, but it does not mean others will not try something similar - witness again Britain, where Prime Minister Theresa May is making a so far remarkably successful bid for UKIP votes as she forges ahead with Brexit.

In Hungary and Poland, governments are already in the hands of relatively unreconstructed nationalist parties.

It seems unlikely for now that any western European state will imminently follow suit, but it also seems unlikely they will go away.

Alternative for Germany, for example, looks to have rejected suggestions by some of its leadership that it move towards the mainstream and consider a coalition with more moderate parties to gain power, preferring to stay on the extremes.

That prospect has the German authorities unsettled.

Even as Ms Le Pen was being roundly defeated, the German military authorities were beginning a search of military bases across the country for Nazi and neo-Nazi memorabilia.

What Mr Macron's victory has clearly demonstrated is just how fast pre-existing political assumptions can be overturned.

Mr Macron, after all, was barely seen as a credible candidate a year ago, not least because of the assumption that one of France's main parties would remain the primary challenge to Ms Le Pen.

That makes the Macron victory a lonely one for now, although he will be hoping his movement can win a significant number of seats in legislative elections in just over a month.

If he could do so, he will have upended postwar French politics and will have considerable freedom of movement. If not, he will be dependent on Republican and Socialist parliamentarians whose parties' long-term survival may depend on making sure he is not too much of a success.

There is also another force lurking in the wings that appears to wish him and Europe's other mainstream politicians ill - Russia's Vladimir Putin.

The leak of hacked e-mails released late on Friday did not appear to have a significant impact on the campaign, leading to the suggestion from WikiLeaks that it might have been done by the campaign itself.

That is not entirely impossible, but the leaks did appear to fit within an established Kremlin playbook. It was a reminder that Mr Putin and those around him wish Western democracy ill.

Sunday's election may not have been the catastrophe many feared, but it is only the end of a chapter. Where Europe goes next remains unwritten, and there is everything to play for.

The writer is the global affairs columnist at Reuters.

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