A weaker Macron is good news to European populists

Beyond the social protests that characterise the yellow vest demonstrations, there are nasty undercurrents that are openly anti-Muslim and call for a strong hand, a military one at that, to run France.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Political tremors. French president Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting, December 22. (AFP)
Political tremors. French president Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting, December 22. (AFP)

Populist parties across Europe cannot hide their relish at the discomfiture of French President Emmanuel Macron. The prize political leaders such as Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini are seeking is the takeover of Europe in May’s European parliamentary elections.

Kurz apparently feels vindicated by the hard-line stance on illegal immigration he took in 2015 when, across the border, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was welcoming refugees from Syria and elsewhere who were pouring into Europe. He was accused of undermining European solidarity and values. Three years later, he has not only won power but contained the rise of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, which had been leading Kurz’s People’s Party in opinion polls.

For Kurz and the new breed of right-wing leaders, such as Laurent Wauquiez in France, Pablo Casado in Spain and Salvini, Macron’s yellow vest predicament and a spluttering French economy (the Austrian economy is growing at 2.7% of GDP) are very welcome news.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s relish is evident; so is US President Donald Trump’s. A short 12 months ago Macron branded himself the arch-enemy of Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, two leaders whose trademark policies target migrants, political opponents and the rule of law. The later faces opposition in the streets to his austerity and socially regressive economic policies but the former is more popular than when he was voted into power last summer.

When he won election to the presidency in May 2017, Macron promised a revolution — it was the title of his campaign book — to address a widespread need for domestic renewal and rebooting of French prestige, not least on the European stage.

The slow fading away of Merkel and what appears like an increasingly paralysed president at home bode ill for the man who championed liberal and internationalist values across Europe.

The yellow vest movement is far from coherent in its aims but, like elsewhere in Europe, it reflects the new political reality: entire social groups feel pitted against one another — young versus old, unemployed versus employed, rural versus urban, unqualified versus qualified.

In France such divisions take on a quasi-existential dimension because of the ideal of egalitarianism historically associated with the republic. As a former merchant banker and elite civil servant, Macron all too often comes across as aloof, unfeeling and prone to lecturing the lower classes. When he addressed the French on New Year’s Eve, any sense of empathy for his fellow citizens was absent.

Beyond the social protests that characterise the yellow vest demonstrations, there are nasty undercurrents that are openly anti-Muslim and call for a strong hand, a military one at that, to run France. The fear of immigration runs deep in France and in Europe and will continue to shape the political landscape, throwing up populist forces, as it recently did in Spain. In general elections, Casado’s party, which gained power in Andalusia, in coalition with Citizens-Party of the Citizenry and the People’s Party, could well gain seats in the Congress of Deputies.

Beyond Europe, Macron’s grand Gaullist-Mitterrandist style projection of French diplomacy is not faring well. In Mali, the fight against terrorism is not going well; in Libya the president’s attempt to upstage the Italians diplomatically has fallen flat.

He is hardly faring better in the Middle East. There are the United States’ unpredictable shifts. In Syria, US President Donald Trump announces he is pulling out immediately only to be contradicted by his national security adviser John Bolton, who says US troops will not leave north-eastern Syria until Islamic militants are defeated and US-allied Kurdish fighters protected.

Trump’s original announcement drew widespread criticism and led to the resignation of US Defence Secretary James Mattis. It raised fears of a Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters.

Macron opposed Trump’s decision but whatever happens in Washington, there is no way French special forces can stay if US troops pull out. So much for a French independent policy!

Beyond Syria, the French president, alongside other European leaders, opposes Trump’s policy on Iran but is powerless to influence it. He has stayed close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz but France can do little to influence the shape of relations between countries on the Arabian Peninsula and in Iran. France, like Britain, does not have the means to conduct an independent policy in the Middle East.

European populists have no interest in promoting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, which will come as a great relief to the autocrats of the region. Like Trump, they seem to have a liking for such rulers. All relations are transactional and commercial and no European leader wishes to offend Israel. Beyond local consideration, there is no mileage in French domestic politics to be gained from the Middle East. The less heard the better.

Macron starts 2019 in a much weaker position, domestically and internationally than 2018. Domestic politics in North Africa are the only ones in the region that might affect French domestic politics or the vote in European elections in May. Here again, Maghrebi politics and the health of the region’s leaders will matter more than anything the French leader does.