Friday

18th Aug 2017

Interview

'Le Pen could come back stronger'

The new French president, Emmanuel Macron, must manage the country more effectively than his predecessor, socialist Francois Hollande. Otherwise, far-right leader Marine Le Pen could come back in a much stronger position.

"The question is what will happen in five years' time. If Macron does not manage more effectively than Hollande, then she [Le Pen] must then be in a stronger position," Brigid Laffan, director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence, told EUobserver in an interview.

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She said that "a lot will depend on the French economy, as well".

"Next year, Europe would have had ten years of financial crisis and only the beginnings of growth again. That’s a long time. That’s a very long time".

"It is important to remember the populist parties are not new – they just got more traction because of hard economic times." she added.

Laffan is an Irish professor in European politics from University College Dublin. Since 2013, she has worked at the European University Institute in Florence, which focuses largely on European integration and is partly funded by the EU.

Last week, she was a driving force in organising the seventh annual State of the Union conference in Florence, which included speakers such as European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and many other top EU officials.

Finished with the populists?

With Emmanuel Macron's victory in Sunday's (7 May) French presidential elections, does the professor think it is over for Europe's populist parties?

Laffan speculated that it is not yet over for Le Pen, but it could already be the end of the line for Geert Wilders, the right-wing Dutch politician.

"The Dutch party system is now very fragmented, but it looks to me like there is a ceiling on his [Wilders'] vote. And the ceiling is somewhere between 10 and 13 percent, and if all of the rest of the political system decides it will not coalesce with him, then Wilders does not have a pathway to power," she says.

The professor will, however, be following the next Austrian general election carefully, since the last presidential vote was only won by a very slim margin by the green candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, against far-right Freedom Party leader Norbert Hofer.

"The Greens are not strong enough to win a general election, so one has to ask: how strong will the Freedom Party be the next time round?" Laffan asked.

Italy and Austria next

Italy is also in a fragile political situation.

"At the moment, it looks to me like they are not going to be able to agree on a new electoral law, in which case you will have again a fragmented result and therefore the most likely governing coalition after the next election is a PD [Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party] – Forza Italia [Silvio Berlusconi's party]".

They would form a coalition against the regionalist populist party, Lega Nord, and former comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star movement.

Laffan adds that Europe is "polarised across generations, ages, regions" and that the killer variable in voter behaviour appears to be education.

"In, for example, Brexit, those who voted leave were disproportionately people with lower levels of education, which is related to life chances", she said.

The professor then argued that the better educated and those who aspire to be mobile internationally have a particular worldview: more open borders, more comfortable with multiple identities - versus those she called "the stay at homers".

"And of course the 'stay at homers' and their national political communities are changing pretty dramatically with immigration", Laffan argued, noting that "the contours of society and politics have changed".

Internet changing politics

Sunday's French presidential election saw the traditional parties wiped out of the game and the choice for voters was, in the end, between the "patriots and the globalists", as National Front's leader Marine Le Pen had described it.

Why do we see that such an important election is no longer being fought along the left-right battle lines?

"There was a time when being a member of a party was a social identity. You were part of the club, you worked for the party, you handed out leaflets, you went to meetings," Laffan said, outlining a view that we now "live in a more individualised world."

The barriers to entering politics are also much lower now, she pointed out.

"Someone like Macron could go from nowhere to being French president with a slogan ’En Marche!’"

She argues that social media, such as Twitter, Internet, Facebook, play a huge role and that "the communications revolution has also changed politics and political parties".

However, Laffan emphasies the importance of political parties as providers for elected governments, "otherwise it is all a world of NGOs and we are in terrible trouble".

She says that those who want to live in a reasonably tolerant, open and cohesive society "have the responsibility to fight".

Democratic values: To share, or not to share

In hindsight, should the European established parties and politicians have treated populist leaders and their supporters with more respect and understanding?

Laffan makes a distinction between right-wing parties and the extreme right, the latter of which she calls "those that do not share the formats and values of our political system and democracy."

"I think you can’t go into power with them because, if you do, you will be tarnished," the professor argued.

"On the other hand, right-wing parties that are not anti-establishment parties: you may not agree with them, you may not like them, but provided that they are still committed to democratic engagement, then I think if they have been voted for, they must be listened to".

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[Updated] The centrist pro-EU candidate easily beat far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, with 66.1 percent of the vote against 33.9 percent.

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