The results of the first round of the French presidential election have been greeted with an awkward mixture of dismay and relief: dismay that neither of the candidates of the two mainstream parties—the incumbent center-left Socialists and their historic rivals, the center-right Republicans—qualified for the second round, and relief that the candidate who is now widely predicted to win the presidency on May 7 is a centrist Europeanist, Emmanuel Macron. The dreaded scenario of a run-off between the two anti-system “populist” candidates—the anti-immigrant and anti-European Marine Le Pen, and the anti-establishment and anti-austerity Jean-Luc Melenchon—failed to materialize.
In reality, these results confirm tendencies that are becoming more familiar in light of other recent election results in Europe. The collapse of the traditional mainstream parties and the ongoing realignment around a new axis of political competition, which pits advocates of openness to trade, immigration, and liberal social values against advocates of “closure” or “protection” from the latter, is nothing new. It underpinned the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the very narrow victory of the far-left against the far-right in the Austrian presidential elections, and the gains made by Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the recent parliamentary vote in the Netherlands. Instead of continuing to express either dismay or relief at the results, it is high time to take stock of the fact that a new political landscape is emerging in Europe.
The process need not constitute a crisis for existing democratic institutions. It may simply be a reflection of underlying changes in contemporary societies, which in itself would be a healthy sign of representative democracy’s capacity to adapt to shifting social conditions. The Swiss sociologist and political scientist Hanspeter Kriesi has attempted to capture the thrust of these changes by describing a new social cleavage that he claims is replacing—or at least superimposing itself on—the traditional division between workers and employers. The new divide pits a predominantly urban, service-based, and liberally-minded constituency of winners
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