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Emmanuel Macron's policies play into the hands of Marine Le Pen

Macron ran on an unapologetic economically and socially liberal platform, and seems to have carried with him a wave of popularity. But this idea is a fantasy.

Since Sunday, when Emmanuel Macron saw off the far-right populist Marine Le Pen to win the French presidency, the streets of Paris and the headlines of liberal newspapers have been full of relief. In a matter of months, there will be riots. The left is, of course, right to celebrate the defeat of Le Pen, whose presidency would have torn the EU apart, persecuted minorities and made the insurgent far right mainstream across Europe. But the temptation to view Macron as a saviour of liberal or inclusive politics, or of the European project, must be resisted. If anything, both the results of the election and the likely realities of a Macron presidency are markers of one of the most dangerous moments in recent European history.

Almost 11 million people have now voted for Marine Le Pen – about the same number as voted Conservative at the last general election, and roughly double the number that voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential run-off. In France, as across the western world, the electoral success of the far right has been made possible by reflecting deeply felt economic insecurity and declining living standards, and offering solutions which involve both ending neoliberal economics and attacking immigrants and minorities. The new far right operates as an anti-establishment insurgency.

During the final heated TV debate of the campaign, Macron confronted Le Pen with the reality that she was “a parasite” – “a product of the system you condemn”. The point was well made, but Macron is the living embodiment of that system – and not just because he is a former banker and senior civil servant who went through France’s elite education institutions and has never been elected to anything before.

François Hollande’s descent from enjoying electoral victory in 2012 to being one of the most unpopular Presidents in France’s history was marked by a series of austerity measures which stripped away workers’ rights. Among the most significant of these is literally called the "Macron Law". In government, Macron now plans to sack 120,000 civil servants and to cut public spending by €60bn. While promising more deregulation of the labour market, he will cut corporation tax from 33 per cent to 25 per cent and actively promote trade deals like TTIP and Ceta.

Macron’s programme is centred around a straightforwardly neoliberal economic policy which will lead to further economic insecurity for many. It will most likely be delivered by a government comprised not of one party but of figures from all of the big establishment parties – centre-left Socialists, centre-right Republicans and an assortment of centrist forces. As it stands, when Marine Le Pen runs again in 2022, she will be running against a political establishment that has huddled together and delivered a slightly nastier version of an already unpopular economic model.

And there is another danger at play – that the left in Britain and elsewhere will learn all the wrong lessons. For a generation of pundits and aspiring politicians on the modernising right wings of Europe’s social democratic parties, Macron’s decisive second round victory will look like a way out of the polarisation that is demolishing the certainties that held together the political universe of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. Macron ran on an unapologetic economically and socially liberal platform, and seems to have carried with him a wave of popularity.

This idea is a fantasy. Macron managed just over 23 per cent of the vote in the first round of the election, following the friendly withdrawal of veteran centrist François Bayrou and the defection of many of the Socialist Party’s leading lights whose party selected a candidate they didn’t like. An overwhelming portion of the votes which came to Macron in the second round came to him simply because he was not Le Pen, with just 16 per cent backing him because of his programme.

As Stephen Bush points out, the fact that Macron has managed to win by fighting, rhetorically at least, toe-to-toe with the nativist right rather than adopting their policies like so many other centrists have, is cause for hope. But it is difficult to imagine a more toxic set of standard-bearers for tolerance and globalism than the very same politicians whose policies created the social conditions for the far right. Another five years of the European elite continuing with the status quo while waxing lyrical about the values of integration is not a strategy for saving the EU – it is laying yet more dynamite under its foundations.

There is, of course, an alternative. To beat the far right, progressives must match a principled defence of free movement and social progress with a transformative, insurgent economic programme that redistributes wealth, restores jobs and public services, and democratises the economy and the state. Despite his Euroscepticism, a radical left Jean-Luc Melanchon presidency would have held far greater prospects for revitalising the European project and beating back the far right. On this side of the channel, however improbable and precarious is may seem, the Jeremy Corbyn project provides the best hope of providing that alternative. 

 

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.