Populism’s not dead. In Europe, it may just be getting started

What’s happening? French President Emmanuel Macron faces a political balancing act amid potential civic unrest and the rising popularity of far-right political opponent Marine Le Pen, according to a recent thought leadership piece from ING. Social unrest could be around the corner, the piece argues, with France facing public health and economic crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The country is also facing a test of national security following recent terrorist attacks. Macron and Le Pen are roughly level in polling. This means the incumbent, a centrist, will have to convince right-wingers not to lend support to his opponent while also not ignoring left-wing voters.

Why does this matter? Any attempts to paint Donald Trump’s defeat in the recent US presidential election as a blow to global populism seem premature.

Macron’s overcoming of Le Pen in 2017 hasn’t seemingly rid France of populism’s presence. Recent polls suggest far-right Le Pen would gain more votes than the incumbent in the first round of a French presidential election. France goes to the polls to decide its next president in 2022.

Le Pen has also been afforded an opportunity to boost her public profile recently, using a string of terrorist attacks in France to attack immigration policies. Additionally, as the above article points out, Macron faces a balancing act, needing to keep those left-of-centre happy. Frustration from the left has recently raised its head in France, with protestors voicing concern over a government bill that would make it a crime to disseminate images of police officers’ faces.

The French leader has already had to make concessions to left-leaning parties during his presidency. In June, he announced €15bn worth of funding for green initiatives in response to a strong showing from the country’s Green Party in local elections.

The influence of populism and nationalism has also recently been seen elsewhere in Europe with Hungary and Poland vetoing the EU’s coronavirus Recovery Fund over a “rule-of-law” mechanism, designed to ensure those receiving financial support from the bloc stand by democratic principles.

Commentators have pointed out both Poland and Hungary would have been net beneficiaries of the EU’s recovery plan and budget. The veto, therefore, shows how powerful symbolic nationalism – particularly being wielded in opposition to Brussels – can be. Poland has since indicated it would be willing to drop its veto if certain conditions are met.

We’ve previously noted how bonds holding the EU together are seemingly being strained by the Covid-19 pandemic. Against this backdrop, it’s probably worth keeping tabs on populism progress within the bloc.

Lateral thought from Curation – If European nations are drifting apart, then the opposite seems to be happening in Southeast Asia. The recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has created the world’s largest trading bloc in terms of GDP.

Furthermore, China has recently expressed an interest in joining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Beijing has also sent top diplomats to Japan and South Korea amid talks of a trilateral arrangement being entered into.

Amid this is anecdotal evidence that the West’s reputation is declining in the region. Reports in South Korea, for example, show declining admiration for the US following its response to Covid-19. This sentiment may be held more broadly given how Europe and the US have struggled to contain the virus relative to countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore.

Nick Jardine

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