Benoit Tessier / Reuters Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche!, or Onwards!, celebrates the results in the first round of 2017 French presidential election, Paris, France, April 23, 2017.

The French Election and Europe's New Normal

A Choice Between Open and Closed

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 of globalization against a predominantly non-urban, manufacturing-based and conservatively-minded constituency of the so-called losers of globalization.

If this is the case, it should not be surprising to see globalization—broadly understood as the push for more supra-national integration, international trade, immigration, and liberal social values—emerge as the key axis of political contention, at the expense of the previous left-right dichotomy, which was based on disagreement over the degree of state involvement in the economy. The question that remains is whether the new political alignments will be capable of adequately responding to the social demands raised by globalization. 

On the one hand, the competition between a party of openness and a party of closure has the merit of having triggered a discussion on the merits of globalization. Before, globalization was presented as inevitable and simply not within the scope of legitimate political debate. On the other hand, both the party of “openness” and the party of “closure” seem pointedly ill-suited for addressing the most salient political problem that globalization has posed over the past few decades: the growing inequality in both social status and life-chances between “winners” and “losers” from the process. Both “openness” and “closure” merely reaffirm this social division, without offering any means of bridging it or softening it.

Whether democratic institutions will draw new life or be undermined by the ongoing social and political transformations therefore depends on the new parties’ capacity to either make globalization more inclusive or its reversal less exclusive.

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