With the advent of France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Martin Schulz apparently out of (centre-)left field, at first glance it’s far too easy to draw comparisons with other populist movements. The tendency in political analysis to look for generic trends to explain phenomenon does not serve a useful purpose in this case, masking the truly interesting aspects of their rise.
Their insurrectionist path to the forefront of domestic politics in their countries may suggest that they share more with a certain transatlantic counterpart than they do. The most interesting aspect of these examples of insurgency is that they’ve gained pace by virtue of a desire to stop the nativist Trumpian figures—Allianz für Deutschland and le Front National. While it may be true that a latent yet popular tendency toward ejecting incumbents from office has resulted in the public gravitating towards fresh faces, the establishment’s response to the spectre of far-right nationalism capitalising on this trend was to create their own forms of populism that take the mantle of renegadism, while acting in defence of their broad policy interests. These wolves in sheep’s clothing stand to protect tentative stability in these countries while posing as revolutionaries.
Schulz, a career politician, has polled exceptionally well since his announcement that he is transferring from European to German national politics and will be the Social Democrats’ candidate for Chancellor in this September’s elections. He has regularly been described as the insider’s outsider. His socialist pedigree and history in several party roles render him very like most other politicians. And his most recent position as President of the European Parliament afforded him a seat at the top table of European influence. That he did not attend university, and that his rise to German political consciousness derives from Brussels and Strasbourg rather than Berlin, marks him as different from his opponent for Chancellor, the doctor of chemistry Angela Merkel. However, his background in local government, alcoholism and a failed football career render him a curious figure.
In the race for the Elysée Palace, the expected, traditional shift between the Socialists and the Republicans has been upset, and it was the Republicans’ election to lose. With Hollande achieving approval ratings as low as 4%, the Parti Socialiste were expecting the Republicans primary to be the presidential coronation. Now, with a series of scandals which are decidedly clichéd, the Republican’s electoral hopeful François Fillon has declared in a Trumpian fashion that he won’t be leaving the race for the Elysée Palace. The establishment’s best chance of combating the fear of a Le Pen presidency has been located in the curiosity of Emmanuel Macron’s disruptive and insurgent campaign.
Positing Emmanuel Macron as a radical populist would be farcical. While he is certainly young (at 39), and starting a new political force, he is a very recent alumnus of the establishment. A former Minister for the Economy in the Parti Socialiste government of Francois Hollande, his new political force En Marche! is centrist, co-opting the language of the left (En Marche translates as “Forward”) while moving further to the centre to attract those members of Les Republicains balking at Fillon. That the sensible alternative is now the insurgent Macron speaks to the French establishment’s experience in dealing with the Front National in 2002.
The likelihood is that a Macron presidency will result in a “cohabitation”—when the presidency’s party does not possess a majority in the Assemblé National. Traditionally the president may allow their prime minister to lead on policy and settle into a traditional ceremonial presidency. But if France’s electors do not grant any party a majority, a coalition will afford a Macron presidency real power. The best model for analysing these trends clearly is the left-wing coalition government in Portugal. Although the centre-right Social Democratic Party won the most seats in the 2014 election, a technocratic left-wing government subsequently formed a majority to unseat the right-wing.
A European establishment can take heart in the fact that what’s occurring is—for all intents and purposes—a continuation of the same trends that have taken hold across Europe since democracy came to much of Europe in the middle-to-late twentieth century. That is a general faith in elected representatives to make decisions on the floor of parliament, and the moderating force of permanent coalition governments. Combating nativism to stop Eurosceptic contagion has become the most significant electoral battle that these figures now face.
Fionn McGorry is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.