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Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old leader of the fledgling En Marche! (On the Move!) party, soundly defeated Marine Le Pen, the ‘unsinkable’ stalwart of the right, by 66% to 34%. Le Pen’s harsh and negative campaign, based on opposition to the European Union, opposition to immigration and opposition to supposed elitism, while espousing aggressive nationalism, was emphatically rejected by voters. The Eurosceptic had said she would pull France out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and European Union (EU) and in 2011 said marine border patrols should “push migrants who want to come to Europe back into international waters”. In contrast, throughout his campaign Macron pitched himself as a direct alternative to Le Pen’s National Front party, which was tainted by a racist past, and surrounded by Eurosceptic policies.

The defeat of Le Pen undoubtedly offered great comfort to all those who have worried about the almost meteoric rise of far right movements in the West, particularly in the recent past. It’s been a difficult moment – the country was so divided. The atmosphere of the election was of a deep clash of ideas. There was a fear that the French would choose nationalism. However, after the most thrilling and tumultuous election campaign of recent times, the French defied populism and made history, bringing to a close an “annus horribilis”( horrible year) marked by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Debates around religion and identity are far more extreme in France. With regard to tackling the issue of home-grown radicalisation too, Macron certainly has a better idea of what that means as he promised to focus on preventative measures and coherent plans for integration although it will take a lot of work to make France match up with the inclusive, diverse image that he has painted around his campaign. Macron thus confronted racism, stigmatised it, and offered hope.

The U.S. elections and Brexit last year were preceded by a divisive campaign, overshadowed specifically by xenophobic and Islamophobic hate speech and anti-establishment sentiments. Surprising or not, all of this could also be said about Sunday’s French presidential election as well. The prospect of a nation with the stature of France passing into the hands of a party regarded by so many to be racist, indeed near-fascist, caused alarm internationally across the mainstream political board. Madani Cheurfa, a professor of politics at Paris’s Sciences Po, or Paris Institute of Political Studies, said “The world is focused on France because France has managed to encapsulate — almost to the point of caricature — the debate underway across the world.” Naturally therefore, the West’s political establishments turned their anxious attention to a series of potentially disruptive elections in Europe. However, Far-right movements suffered set-backs, making Macron’s win the third consecutive setback for European populist parties which preached a mix of Trump-style nationalism and protectionism to voters fed up with conventional politics.

Le Pen’s defeat thus was not the first setback for right-wing populism in Europe. In fact, in recent times, a far-right candidate Norbert Hofer lost Austria’s presidential vote in December, and the Dutch re-elected mainstream parties in March rejecting far-right firebrand Geert Wilders and his anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV). Even in Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany has collapsed in opinion polls in recent months following post-Trump heights. As Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations said, “This is what happens when the refugee crisis doesn’t dominate the headlines anymore and the right-wing populists are dismantling themselves. It isn’t that simple after all to break Europe apart with nationalism.”

Macron’s landslide does not mean that the future will be rosy. One survey showed that 43 percent of those who voted for Macron on Sunday did so out of opposition to Le Pen’s National Front, with only a third doing so to renew French politics. No-one can shrug off Le Pen’s performance as a vanishing phase as the far-right can take some comfort in its best electoral showing in French history. Further, although Le Pen fell well short of the presidency, her score was roughly double what her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, got in the second round in 2002. In the coming days, Macron will therefore not only take in the full measure of what he has achieved, but also of the burden of the task ahead. He will appoint a provisional government but then needs to secure, or stitch together, a governing majority in parliament after two-round elections in June. Macron’s ability to revive confidence and turn France around, matters for the whole of Europe. If he fails, it will be harder than ever next time to keep populism at bay, and the likes of Le Pen out of power. He rightly opined, “As long as traditional parties brandish only fear or morality to fight the (Le Pen’s) FN, it won’t be efficient”.

It should therefore be noted that for the time being, France has dodged the bullet, but there is no telling where the Le Pen clan will be at the next election, or the subsequent elections. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s wannabe assassins, the republic has to be lucky always; its enemies only once. As the record vote against the FN (rather than for Macron) shows, the far-right still viscerally repulses. But if Macron’s time in office fails to the degree that his predecessor’s did, perhaps just enough voters will be convinced to jump ship for Le Pen to coast to victory next time. But should she win, it would be due to a record low turnout and high abstention rate. She would be an untested and resented leader, with no parliamentary majority. With Le Pen having shown dismaying laxity in conforming to the rule of law during her speeches, who can predict how Le Pen’s fondness for authoritarian leadership would push her to behave.

Macron realised the gravity of the task ahead and the imperative need to cater to the disillusioned segments of the nation who voted for Le Pen as well as he underlined during his victory speech. “I know the divisions of our country that have driven some to the extreme. I respect them. I know the anger, anxiety, and doubts that many have expressed”. He also expressed similar views to The Economist last year: ‘Politicians needed to propose something positive, persuasive and engaging instead: an open, tolerant, pro-European society, based on encouraging private enterprise rather than crushing or over-protecting it, and creating paths out of poverty for globalisation’s victims. France’s biggest labour union, the CFDT too opined , “Now, all the anxieties expressed at the ballot by a part of the electorate must be heard,” it said in a statement. “The feeling of being disenfranchised, of injustice, and even abandonment is present among a large number of our citizens”.

Lessons Beyond France

As stated, the failure of the far-right to seize office comes in stark contrast to expectations last November that Trump’s ascendancy in the United States would unleash a global wave of populist politicians. Trump’s anti-globalisation and anti- Muslim rhetoric were more in line with Le Pen than Macron who adopted a more open and optimistic creed. The subsequent elections have shown a clear trend in Western Europe; voters are sick of the mainstream and fed up with their leaders. But they are still not ready to hand power to the far-right. The chaotic first months of the Trump presidency may actually have hurt Europe’s populists rather than helping them. Dr Maryse Helbert, a researcher in French national and international politics at the University of Melbourne, said Le Pen’s defeat signalled a rejection of populist sentiments. It shows that while yes, there was a wave of populism in the world, starting with Donald Trump and Brexit, it hasn’t translated in other European countries.”

Dissatisfaction, cynicism and outright rejection of traditional political parties (as well as business and banking elites) many of which have been in power in Western Europe in one way or another since the end of the World War Two- this and not far-right fervour, is arguably driving voters to stage ballot-box protests or to seek alternative political homes – to the delight of Europe’s populist parties. As observers note, radical rightwing politics attempted to thrive by exploiting the popular rage that characterises the mood in France today (fuelled by joblessness and deep distrust of the elites). Despite that trend, a clear-sighted, energetic Macron came out on top. He calls himself “progressive”, and stands for social liberalism, or pro-market social democracy. As observers call him, he is the anti-radical who advocates step-by-step, moderate reform to heal the many fractures of an extremely tense and anxious country. He doesn’t want to pitch social classes or ethnic groups against one another. His is a slow-motion revolution, and that’s something utterly new by French standards. It’s an approach that could strike a chord not just across its’ continent that sees nationalism reawakened, but beyond too. The best antidote seems to be a confident centre, one built on pragmatic, moral, optimistic beliefs as experts point out.

What lessons can Sri Lanka draw from Macron’s victory?

A new right-wing nationalism with the potential to reshape regional politics has emerged in Asia. The emerging nationalism resurrects some of the region’s older authoritarian ideologies and institutions. At the core of this nationalism is the use and manipulation of a cultural stake and appeals to notions of majoritarianism and racial identity. Today, few commentators would suggest that the Left, especially in its early day form promoting equality, has much future at all in Asia outside Russia. Many alt-right hate groups have emerged in South Asia with well-orchestrated hate campaigns being directed against the ‘other’. In Sri Lanka too, since Independence, majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist lobbies have infiltrated the officialdom and policy making bodies to subdue the other communities. There is little hope that the political system in place at present will offer any substantive solutions with a partisan leadership which has lost credibility among the general masses. Therefore, there is a cry among the people for a decisive and qualitative change in the political system and culture . Macron’s election offers some pointers in this regard.

Firstly, the need to look beyond the two main parties, whose political leadership have lost credibility, as they have not shown any pragmatic signs of reforming their approaches to suit the needs of the electorate. Even ‘Yahapalanya’ has become a misnomer. There is already clamour among the people to look out for a third force. Can JVP take up this challenge or will the nationalists or monk led majoritarian groups exploit the dissatisfaction among the people to gain their ulterior political ends?

Next, the need for youth leadership. There is a certain irony in the fact that those who reach political leadership tend to be of mature years, even elderly. Our contemporary culture cherishes youth; yet the democratic procedures regularly ensure that positions of public accountability are not thrust on the young. In today’s context, there is a need for new ideas and imagination and to take calculated risks by trying out those new ideas. This necessitates infusion of new blood.

There is also an urgent need to reach out to the silent majority, who feel disillusioned by the partisan policies of the consecutive Post-Independence governments in power. If this does not happen, there is a possibility for more Trumps and Le Pens to emerge from within and exploit the mood of the masses.

In 2011 the political think tank Demos conducted compelling research into the increased online popularity of neo-Nazi and openly fascist political parties in Europe. Jamie Bartlett, the principal author of the report, says it is vital to track the spread of such attitudes among the new generation of online activists, who are far more numerous than the formal membership of such parties.”There are hundreds of thousands of them across Europe. They are disillusioned with mainstream politics and European political institutions and worried about the erosion of their cultural and national identity, and are turning to populist movements who they feel speak to these concerns.” These activists are largely out of sight of mainstream politicians, but they are motivated, active and growing in size. Politicians across the continent need to sit up, listen and respond.”

There needs to be an eye kept on disruptive far right groups preaching hatred of the ‘other’. Parties touting anti-immigrant and Islamophobic ideas in Europe exploited the economic crisis and Euro-zone financial meltdown as a way to pull in new members, particularly from the middle classes and unemployed youth and to spread their xenophobic and Islamophobic ideas to gain political mileage. This had all the classic hallmarks of Hitler’s rise to power on the back of resentment over the reparations Germany paid for World War I, the 1929 global capitalist crisis and the scapegoating of a vulnerable group – the Jews. The Nazis’ anti-Semitic rhetoric then struck a chord of deep cultural hatred for Jewish people. Nowadays it is Muslims and overt Islamophobia not just in Europe but in other parts of the globe as well, supported by a powerful Islamophobic industry as author Lean Nathan calls it. It is therefore imperative the government monitor the workings of many hate groups operating in Sri Lanka too, which also follow a similar agenda, going by what the social media shows us.

Finally, there a centrist approach must be adopted, without pampering to extremist/majoritarian lobbies

Macron understood that most elections are won by occupying the political centre, not pandering to its extremes; by appealing to progressive patriotism rather than aggressive nationalism and by having the courage to tell blunt truths to voters when necessary. His victory therefore offered a lesson in how to defeat populists on both the far-left and far-right without compromising on principles or reverting to rabble-rousing demagoguery. Since independence, political leaders in Sri Lanka have always played more towards the Sinhala–Buddhist gallery and failed to act as national leaders of all communities. This has become bane for Sri Lanka. The earlier Sri Lanka realises this conundrum, the better for the people and their future progeny.

Those who enjoyed this article might find “From February to October: The Legacy of the Russian Revolution and Sri Lanka today” and “Trump’s Unrealpolitik” enlightening.