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The Next Domino

Will France fall to the West’s populist surge, too?
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Donald Trump’s victory has emboldened Europe’s far-right. While a transatlantic alignment of populist forces is unlikely to be successful, a victory for Front National leader Marine Le Pen in next year’s French presidential elections could prove fatal for Europe.

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© REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

As it became clear in the early hours of November 9 that Americans had elected Donald Trump as their next president, Europe’s leaders hesitated before offering their congratulations.

No doubt their advisers were working tirelessly through the day crafting just the right statement. It was a difficult task, especially considering that so many of Europe’s power brokers had openly criticized the president-elect as a populist demagogue during the campaign.

But Europe’s far-right didn’t waste any time. Congratulations rolled in from Frauke Petry in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, and Marine Le Pen in France.

Hearty congratulations also came from Viktor Orban, the authoritarian leader of Hungary who many see as the first far-right head of government in the EU.

Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party welcomed the news of Trump’s win with the statement, “A great global change is starting. It will continue with nationalists prevailing in Austria, Marie Le Pen in France, and Golden Dawn in Greece.”

For Le Pen, who is challenging the French establishment in that country’s general election next April, Trump’s election victory is a huge opening for her Front National party. “It proves that what was presented as impossible can be made possible,” she told French public television one day after the vote. Her most senior strategist, Florian Philippot, went even further when he tweeted: “Their world sets, ours rises.”

It is clear who the “they” and “us” is. The world that the far-right sees collapsing is the liberal democratic order that has held sway over the Western world for 70 years. The “us” is the populist insurrection against that order – against the Bretton Woods system of monetary policy, the free trade era of globalization, and the political project of uniting European states.

They see in the US president-elect a partner to usher in this new world. And Trump, perhaps naively, has heaped praise right back on to them. It appears that after his victory his team even contacted some of Europe’s far-right leaders before they contacted the actual leaders of their countries.

Nationalists Don’t Play Well with Others

This might seem like a coordinated wave. It is anything but. The West’s far-right demagogues are as diverse as they are angry, and their interests are not aligned. They had praise for Trump but they are not always so willing to praise each other.

Britain’s Farage, for instance, refuses to be seen with Le Pen and has rejected her repeated attempts to have the Front National join his Europe of Freedom and Democracy group in the European Parliament. Le Pen and Wilders have a strained relationship, and their attempt to create a far-right alliance in the European Parliament last year collapsed. All of these leaders would insist they have nothing to do with Greece’s Golden Dawn. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) leader, Frauke Petry, is not so keen on comparisons between her and Le Pen.

Of course, it should be no surprise that nationalists struggle to form international alliances. What unites them, though, is admiration for Vladimir Putin, whose regime is bankrolling some of them, certainly Front National. Can Russia’s president be the one to unite them?

Marine Le Pen said on Wednesday that her election as president next year would form a trio of world leaders with US President-elect Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin that “would be good for world peace.”

“There is a worldwide movement,” she said. “A worldwide movement that rejects unchecked globalization, destructive ultra-liberalism…, the elimination of nation states, the disappearance of borders.”

US intelligence services say Putin actively intervened to sway the US election, with Russian operatives hacking and releasing e-mails embarrassing to Hillary Clinton, and spreading pro-Trump disinformation on the internet. They are accused of doing the same thing during the Brexit referendum campaign and, it can be assumed, they will try to do the same thing in the French election.

But the axis envisioned by Le Pen is an exercise in French self-flattery. The Russian President’s main goal is probably just to undermine confidence in Western liberal democracy – and it has now succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. Once these far-right leaders are in power, it seems unlikely Putin can corral them all into lock-step thinking.

Next Stop Elysée?

France is viewed as the most likely next victim of the populist far-right, anti-globalization wave for two reasons.

First, France is a presidential republic, just like the US. It is the only such country in the EU, with all of the others being more or less UK-style parliamentary democracies.

The French president is elected in a direct vote by the public. In parliamentary democracies, voters select their member of parliament, who then casts a vote for who they think should become prime minister and form a government. This will make it much harder for the far-right to break into power outside France. There are also elections in the Netherlands and Germany next year, but it is highly unlikely that Dutch far-right leader Wilders or Petry, who faces challenges within her own party, could actually become prime ministers.

The second reason France is vulnerable is because it has one of Europe’s oldest and most powerful far-right parties. The Front National has been around since 1972, and in 2002 Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, even managed to make it into the second round of presidential elections.

Even if Le Pen wins, it would be hard for others in Europe to follow. But in the end that may not matter. A Le Pen victory would almost certainly result in a “Frexit” referendum in France and further disintegration of the EU, and then all bets are off. In such a scenario, it cannot be guaranteed that there will be parliamentary democracies to hold off the far right in other parts if Europe.

This is why next year’s French election will determine the future of Europe for the century to come.