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Meanwhile in Europe, a new battle starts

With presidential elections in France fast approaching, centrist Emmanuel Macron has emerged as a top contender

Published: 20th February 2017 01:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th February 2017 08:41 AM   |  A+A-

Illustration: Amit Bandre

Mind the Gap. Three very familiar monosyllabic words for anyone who has travelled on the London Underground. The taped announcement is a warning to beware of the potentially dangerous space between the railway carriages and the platform. But it has a political meaning too. Any political novice will also tell you to mind the gap. Look for the space that isn’t being filled by the other parties and plug it—fast.

Well, at the moment there is a yawning chasm as the traditional parties race to head off threats from the right and left, leaving a vacuum in the centre—the traditional winning ground. But have the divisions that currently afflict Western societies become so acute that the centre ground is now politically unviable. We’ll find out—or at least be presented with a good indication—at the end of April and then again in May.

That’s when France elects its president. And it is looking increasingly as if the battle will be between the far-right Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party and Emmanuel Macron’s newly-formed En Marche (which translates to Forward).

A few weeks ago, the political landscape looked completely different. The two top contenders were Le Pen and Francois Fillon. Macron and the Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon were also-rans.

Then along came Fillon-gate. It was revealed that the Republican presidential candidate paid his wife nearly a million Euros out of government money for work she never did. The revelations appear to have been a fatal blow to the presidential aspirations of Fillon and a boost to Macron’s hopes. He leapt overnight to the number two slot in the opinion polls.

Macron has several things in common with Donald Trump. He is a businessman. He has never held an elected office. His rise to power has been meteoric—from a private sector employee to the president’s economic adviser to economy minister in two years. But that is where the comparison ends. Macron is young—39. His wife is 24 years older than him. Most of all, he is a straight down the middle, pro-Europe, pro-free market, old fashioned middle of the road political, cultural and economic centrist liberal. When he speaks, it is with the dispassionate fact-filled voice of common sense rather than the tub-thumping populist post-truth rhetoric that has come to dominate Western politics.

French voters had hoped that Fillon would fill that role. But he moved the Republican Party to the right to counter the threat of anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Front candidate Le Pen. Then he was caught with his hand in the till.

Socialist Hamon is campaigning on an unelectable far-left platform. When the French economy is struggling to stay afloat, the former education minister proposes to reduce the working week from 35 to 32 hours, tax companies using robots and wants to introduce a universal basic income. His policies hitched to the disastrous administration of Socialist President Francois Hollande means it is unlikely that socialists will do better than a poor fourth place. Looming over the French political scene is Le Pen. The far-right’s darling is now holding the number one spot—27 percent according to a Valentine’s Day poll.

But France has a two-round presidential polling system. Anyone can put their name on the ballot paper in the first round on 23rd April. And if any of the candidates achieve the highly unlikely goal of 51 per cent then they become president. If no one does—and none ever has—then the top two candidates move to the second round on May 7 and the winner of that round moves into the Elysee Palace.

The National Front is a solid vote of determined right-wing activists, but so far they have repeatedly failed to move beyond a third of the electorate.

At the moment, opinion polls say Macron would win 69 percent of the vote in round two run-off between Len Pen and himself. If he does, then Macron could set Europe back on a liberal centrist path.

If Macron sets out to lead Europe back towards its middle of the road liberal values, he will find willing followers in Britain and Germany. In the UK, the banner is ready to be taken up by the all but forgotten Liberal Democrats. The party was almost wiped out in the 2015 general election when its parliamentary representation dropped from 53 to eight MPs. But the Lib Dems have successfully tacked their colours to the pro-Europe mast with the result that since the Brexit referendum the party has grown at breckneck speed. They now have more members than at any time for a quarter of a century, have added another MP and are the only party gaining local council seats.

In Germany, Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has moved to the right in response to attacks on her immigration policy from junior partners in the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union and the far-right Alternative For Deutschland. This has left a gap in the German centre ground and created an opportunity for Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). This week, the SPD foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was elected federal president by the Bundestag and Bundesrat. The post is largely ceremonial, but in the current European political climate, ceremonial jobs take on increased significance. For that reason it is important to note that both the Lander and the federal parliament have chosen a centrist, pro-immigration and pro-European statesman-like figure for the presidency. If he does well, it can only strengthen the position of the SPD before autumn elections.

The populist wave sweeping through the West has proven that shifts in political ideology are a disease which fails to recognise borders—especially those worn thin by years of European cooperation.

(The author is Editor of lookaheadnews.com, a foreign affairs newsletter)



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