On the morning of April 23, 2017, as the polls opened in the ninth arrondissement of Paris, an old man with a cane positioned himself in front of a bright yellow mailbox and began to scrape. After a few minutes, he sauntered away toward the markets of the rue des Martyrs, leaving a torn and scratched relic of the modified hammer-and-sickle logo of the hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise (“Rebellious” or, literally, “Unsubmissive France”).
The old man, evidently no fan of Mélenchon’s anticapitalist, anti-NATO, pro-Russian rhetoric, had reason to worry. In neighborhoods like this, the epicenter of Paris hipsterdom, Mélenchon polled well. Everyone from student protesters to academics and the well-to-do scions of one of the city’s wealthiest families told me they were voting for the ex-communist firebrand. His soaring oratory and rage at the system captivated the left and almost propelled him into the second round; he finished with almost 20 percent of the vote, just 2 percent less than the leader of the National Front (FN), Marine Le Pen.
After the results came in, Mélenchon was the only defeated candidate who did not call upon his followers to back the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron against Le Pen in the second round. He instead consulted 250,000 of them online and found that two-thirds refused to support Macron. In the days leading up to round two, there was panic on the left. Even the former Communist Party organ L’Humanité printed op-eds calling on readers who had voted for Mélenchon to grudgingly back Macron. According to postelection polls, only half of Mélenchon’s voters did so; many simply stayed home, contributing to the highest abstention rate in decades (25 percent) and the largest number of blank or spoiled ballots (over four million, or 12 percent of all votes) ever recorded.
Le Pen and Mélenchon together drew nearly 50 percent of the youth vote in the first round, splitting the 18-34 age bracket evenly. Unlike what happened in Britain’s Brexit referendum, the young did not support the status quo; they voted for extremists who want to leave the EU.
Those who believe millennials are immune to authoritarian ideas are mistaken. Using data from the World Values Survey, the political scientists Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk have painted a worrying picture. As the French election demonstrated, belief in core tenets of liberal democracy is in decline, especially among those born after 1980. Their findings challenge the idea that after achieving a certain level of prosperity and political liberty, countries that have become democratic do not turn back.
In America, 72 percent of respondents born before World War II deemed it absolutely essential to live in a democracy; only 30 percent of millennials agreed. The figures were similar in Holland. The number of Americans favoring a strong leader unrestrained by elections or parliaments has increased from 24 to 32 percent since 1995. More alarmingly, the number of Americans who believe that military rule would be good or very good has risen from 6 to 17 percent over the same period. The young and wealthy were most hostile to democratic norms, with fully 35 percent of young people with a high income regarding army rule as a good thing. Mainstream political science, confident in decades of received wisdom about democratic “consolidation” and stability, seemed to be ignoring a disturbing shift in public opinion.
There could come a day when, even in wealthy Western nations, liberal democracy ceases to be the only game in town. And when that day comes, those who once embraced democracy could begin to entertain other options. Even Ronald Inglehart, the celebrated eighty-three-year-old political scientist who developed his theory of democratic consolidation more than four decades ago, has conceded that falling incomes, rising inequality, and the abject dysfunction of many governments—especially America’s—have led to declining support for democracy. If such trends continue, he wrote in response to Foa and Mounk, “then the long-run outlook for democracy is indeed bleak.” Part of voters’ disillusionment stems from the political establishment’s failure to confront very real tensions and failures of integration, opening the door for a web-savvy army of right-wing propagandists who put forth arguments that are both offensive and easily digestible.
Others have been more nuanced. Christopher Caldwell’s provocative 2009 book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, stood out from the chorus of shrill, alarmist writers who warned that mass migration posed a fundamental threat to European culture and stability. His was a serious and carefully argued book. The central question he posed was, “Can Europe be the same with different people in it?” He held that the erosion of old Christian values and a strong sense of national pride in much of Western Europe weakened the cultural identity of countries to the point that they were no match for the all-encompassing identity offered by Islam.
This account seemed prescient when it was published, but it was premature. The rhetoric of anti-immigration parties and right-wing propagandists has propelled the rise of a powerful countervailing form of extremism: white identity politics. In France, this movement was not strong enough to put Marine Le Pen in power, but it did garner over one-third of valid votes cast in France’s presidential runoff. And like fundamentalist Muslims, white nationalists idealize a pure, imagined past. Both extremist visions feed off one another, and they have the power to tear Europe apart.
The nagging question today is which Europe will ultimately win. In the wake of Macron’s victory in the French election, it is tempting to think that the plague of populist nationalism has been banished. That would be naive.
Within minutes of Macron’s win on May 7, 2017, the triumphalism began across the world. Macron defeats radicalism, proclaimed Spain’s El País. France stems tide of populist revolution, Britain’s Independent cheered. White nationalism gets thumped, declared David Leonhardt in The New York Times the next morning. The euphoria that greeted Macron’s victory is understandable but dangerous. Le Pen’s FN won over 10.5 million votes, double the number her father received in 2002, drawing in supporters from both the far left and center right. She ran a serious and competent campaign, unlike other far-right figures. As with Holland, where Geert Wilders’s weaker-than-expected showing in the March 2017 election was interpreted as a signal that populism’s march had been halted, there is no cause for celebration, as the strong showing of Austria’s right-wing populist Freedom Party in Sunday’s election proved.
Wilders performed poorly because the few times he did campaign, he was surrounded by a phalanx of armed guards in small villages filled with supporters. Le Pen, by contrast, stumped all across the country and braved crowds throwing eggs at her in staunchly anti-FN Brittany. She even tried to upstage Macron in his hometown, Amiens, where he waded into a hostile crowd of striking Whirlpool workers and, rather than pandering, told them he wouldn’t make any “airy promises” to avert the closure of their factory. When Le Pen heard he was going to visit, she descended on the site with her entourage first, seeking to bolster her credentials with workers whom she knew would not be receptive to Macron’s free-market message. It was a bold move akin to Trump’s visit to an Indiana air conditioner factory a few weeks after the election, where he sought to show that he was already saving American jobs.
Even in Paris, where Le Pen’s posters were routinely defaced with the word “SATAN,” there was no unanimity about how to fight her. In contrast to 2002, the front républicain that had battered Le Pen the elder did not materialize this time. Macron’s victory, with 66 percent of the vote, was a convincing one, but it was nowhere near Jacques Chirac’s 82 percent score—a testament to what Marine Le Pen has achieved. After the FN’s loss, Le Pen gave a concession speech that sounded more like a campaign rally for the upcoming legislative elections. If the FN finally abandons its name and the baggage that comes with it, new leaders, like Le Pen’s young and telegenic niece, Marion-Maréchal, may be able to de-demonize the party in a way that Marine could not.
Too many people on the European left scoff at nationalism, mistaking their own distaste for evidence that the phenomenon no longer exists or is somehow illegitimate. If 2016 and 2017 have proven anything, it is that this sort of visceral nationalism, or loyalty to one’s in-group, still exists and is not going away. Those who dismiss this sort of national sentiment as backward and immature do so at their own peril.
What the globalists of the transnational elite miss is that not everyone has the luxury of leaving. Those who don’t have the education and skills to travel abroad often resent those who do. To compensate, they identify strongly with the place they come from and support politicians who promise to protect them from both genuine and imaginary threats. They do not have the luxury of voting with their feet, but their protest is felt at the polls.
To dismiss the populist impulse as something completely alien is to miss the point and to preemptively lose the political debate. With or without actual control of the government, they have proved they can exert influence and shape debates without ever wielding formal power.
The first step in any coherent political project to counter right-wing populists is to reject the fear that fuels their popularity and resist the temptation to adopt their policies. Very few leaders have done this. In Holland and Denmark, the center right and the social-democratic left have largely caved and adopted planks from the populists’ platform. The left has lost much of its old base by appearing to care only about free trade, technological progress, and limitless diversity. This scares many people who used to vote for the Democratic Party, British Labour, or European Social Democrats.
Nativist politicians like Trump or Holland’s Geert Wilders are not particularly concerned with bread-and-butter issues, and their economic policies aren’t terribly helpful to workers and the poor. But because there is often no class-based counterargument coming from the left, it is easy for right-wing populists to seize that political terrain; it is an open space. Once the old economic battle lines disappear, realignment becomes very easy. The challenge for today’s left is to acknowledge these voters’ fears and offer policies that help address their grievances without making the sort of moral concessions that lead toward reactionary illiberal policies.
In Europe, there are only two leaders who have unequivocally rejected the nativist vision of the far right. Germany’s Angela Merkel has remained steadfast in her openness to refugees while admitting she has made some policy mistakes. And in France, Macron has forthrightly refused to take the bait, telling Le Pen during the vicious final presidential debate on May 3, “Who plays upon people’s fears? It’s you, the high priestess of fear is sitting in front of me.” He doubled down on this argument in his May 7 victory speech, insisting to the crowds at the Louvre, “We will not succumb to fear… to division.”
This is easy to say after winning an election; it will be harder if there is another terrorist attack. Macron’s challenge will be to stand by his lofty rhetoric when there are bodies in the streets and crowds are baying for blood. Some of Le Pen’s views on terror and immigration have become commonplace even among those who voted against her; the knee-jerk reaction after attacks in most European countries is to tighten immigration controls, but as Macron told her during the debate, closing borders doesn’t stop terrorism, especially in a country like France, where most of the attacks have been perpetrated by French or EU citizens.
Terrorist attacks have in most cases not been connected to the recent wave of refugees, but the two have been conflated in the public’s mind because Le Pen and those afraid of losing votes to her have deliberately linked the two. The overwhelming majority of French Muslims are just as afraid of terrorism as the FN’s voters; they have been its victims twice over, killed in many of the attacks and collectively punished in their wake by a society that blames all Muslims for the crimes of a few.
If Macron can continue to divorce counterterrorism policy from the immigration debate and prove that liberal democracies can be tough on terror without calling for Trump-style travel bans or punitive laws that target Muslims and no one else, it will be a huge achievement, demonstrating that France can fight Islamist terrorism mercilessly without declaring war on Muslims and eroding the rights of the country’s largest minority.
Liberal democracies are better equipped than authoritarian states to grapple with the inevitable conflicts that arise in diverse societies, including the threat of terrorist violence. But they also contain the seeds of their own destruction: if they fail to deal with these challenges and allow xenophobic populists to hijack the public debate, then the votes of frustrated and disaffected citizens will increasingly go to the anti-immigrant right, societies will become less open, nativist parties will grow more powerful, and racist rhetoric that promotes a narrow and exclusionary sense of national identity will be legitimized.
Sasha Polakow-Suransky, an Open Society Foundations fellow, was an op-ed editor for The New York Times from 2011 to 2015 and a senior editor at Foreign Affairs from 2007 to 2011. His first book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship With Apartheid South Africa, was published in 2010. (October 2017).