At last, the world got a break. The centre has held. Yesterday (24 April), 2022 stopped being 2022 just long enough for Emmanuel Macron to see off Marine Le Pen and secure re-election as the president of France. The result came as a great relief to millions around the world.
Many are tempted to try and read into the result some grander narrative in which Europe remains a sort of liberal Hyperborea, a paradise from which the British expelled themselves in 2016 (together with Americans in electing Donald Trump). On closer inspection, however, this conception doesn’t quite square with the bald reality: the Rassemblement National (RN), a party explicitly rooted in the post-fascist far right, has just taken 41 per cent of the second-round vote in one of the European Union’s most important member states.
Admirers in Britain have long been prepared to overlook the unfortunate truth that France is home to one of the world’s largest white far-right parties. While Macron might have won yesterday’s election, the trend of the far right is only upward in France. Back in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, first broke through to contest the second round of the presidential election, French voters united around Jacques Chirac and rejected the Front National (as the RN was known at the time) by more than four to one. The elder Le Pen took less than 18 per cent of the second-round vote. Yet in 2017, his daughter Marine won more than 33 per cent – and yesterday, she won 41 per cent. Furthermore, while in Britain even the respectable right has serious trouble wooing younger voters, polling by YouGov has suggested that in France the RN is ahead with voters aged 18-24, as well as winning voters directly from the far left.
France is not the only EU country to display this trend, however: there are plenty of other correctives for anyone who, despairing of the UK’s current government, might pine for a lost Eden across the English Channel. Across southern Europe the long political legacy of the EU’s tough response to the financial crisis plays out in the rise of right-wing parties that, like the RN, harbour more or less explicit links to historical anti-democratic movements. Italy not only contains the populist party Lega Nord but its smaller ally Fratelli d’Italia, whose logo features the familiar tricoloured flame of the postwar far right.
In Spain meanwhile, Vox, a party with Francoist undertones, has outflanked Madrid’s traditional parties of the right on the question of Spanish unity, and secured its first beachhead in government. In eastern Europe, there is the organised, multinational challenge of the Visegrád Group; while in wealthy northern Europe, the social democratic Danish government recently adopted what Foreign Policy called “one of the harshest refugee policies in the world”.
In contrast, despite the performative toughness of the Rwanda proposals, the United Kingdom operates what the statistics show to be a pretty liberal immigration regime. Whatever its flaws, no sober observer can conflate the Conservative Party with the far-right movements gaining ground on the continent.
None of this is proof that Brexit was a good idea, of course, nor that France and Europe are not home to real liberal achievements. But we should accept that a country in which Le Pen takes 40 per cent of the vote is no nirvana.