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Europe Votes in Paris, Fights in Kyiv

Europe Votes in Paris, Fights in Kyiv

Wednesday, 27 April, 2022 - 09:45

During the debate between president - candidate Emmanuel Macron and the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, the latter claimed that she was French while her opponent was European. The deeply indicative assertion eloquently sheds light on how nationalists understand “identity:” it is either this or that. A citizen cannot, in this event, be both French and European at the same time. Nevertheless, this phrase and the position of the French nationalist right more generally is to target Europe with politics, when Russian President Vladimir Putin is targeting it with fire.

That is why the media outlets that headlined their reporting on the results of the recent elections as “Putin’s defeat in France” weren’t wrong. The fact that European leaders rushed to enthusiastically congratulate Macron is indicative, as is German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s assertion that Macron’s victory is “a sign of Europe’s strength.” France and Germany are often referred to as “the engines of Europe,” a label made more accurate by Britain’s exit from the European Union. If Germany is the EU’s strongest economy, France is the one that speaks for the continent on the world stage through its membership on the Security Council, as well as being home to the continent’s only nuclear arsenal.

If Le Pen had managed to make it to the Elysee, it would have undermined the European project and paved the way to Frexit succeeding 2016’s Brexit, though with her adoption of a “new” discourse, she has become reticent about this goal. The characterization Macron offered of Le Pen highlights her program of fragmenting and undermining Europe: She is in Putin’s pocket. The grounds for leveling this accusation include Le Pen endorsing the rigged referendum that the Russian President held in Crimea in 2014, receiving a loan from a Russian bank, and finally her opposition to the imposition of sanctions on Russian gas. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelansky’s talk, where he was extremely friendly to Macron and welcoming of his victory, is almost a facade demanded by diplomacy for a position demanded by war.

Thus, it seems that the same Europeanism fighting Russification in Kyiv voted against it in Paris. Just as the Ukrainians have so far succeeded in a negative way (preventing Russia from succeeding), the French have succeeded in avoiding the ugliest scenario.

Macron managed to obtain more than 58 percent of those who voted, with Le pen being given the remaining 42 percent. He added his name to those of the Fifth Republic presidents who had their terms renewed, including Charles de Gaulle, Francois Mitterrand, and Jacques Chirac. Indeed, he did one better, managing to avoid cohabitation with a rival prime minister. The other presidents, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, were all gone after a single term. The results of the recent elections also mean that France, and behind it Europe, averted a potential collapse of its national fabric- relations with Muslims in particular comes to mind- as well as the implosion of relations with the rest of Western Europe, the United States, and the countries of the Maghreb. Assessing the development from a European angle, the German elections, after which a pro-European coalition emerged that brought together the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Liberals, are another cause for optimism, one that preceded the French elections and the war in Ukraine.

But the relief of victory does not negate the threats facing France and the European project, which Macron, in his victory speech, seemed alert to. Next June, France will hold its legislative elections, which the hard right and the far left seek to turn into an opportunity to prevent Macron from being able to govern. This was evident in the two aggressive speeches by Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon, who aspires to become prime minister by imposing cohabitation, made after the results were announced.

Another source of apprehension for French democracy is that the latest elections saw the highest abstention rate since the 1969 elections, which followed the student revolution of May 1968 and De Gaulle’s resignation, as well as coinciding with a growing sense that the Fifth Republic was being put to an existential test. No less worryingly, Macron’s support fell from 66 percent in 2017 to 58 percent today, compared to Le Pen’s progress from 33 percent to 41 percent and her success in moving the far-right from the margins to the mainstream. In the country of the French Revolution, four out of ten people voting for Le Pen is alarming.

On top of that, the apprehension multiplies once we combine the votes cast in favor of extremists of all kinds in the first round, and after we add the fact that very many of those who voted for Macron in the second round did so only to prevent Le Pen from reaching office, as he himself admitted, or that the number of youths who voted radicals, especially Melenchon, is extremely high.

In his brief victory speech, Macron gave the impression that he is aware of these challenges to democracy and Europe. However, the challenges can only be overcome through an array of policies and actions, especially with regard to setting limits on the neoliberal economy, particularly on the taxation and environmental fronts.

Europe is not just a market. That was evident from the Ukraine war, the fight against COVID-19, and the distribution of vaccines... It is also a difficult project that deals with defense, the environment, and health, as well as values. Most importantly, it is the first political project in history to transcend the nation-state democratically. Thus, popular enthusiasm for it is required, not just a cold bureaucratic decision: an enthusiasm can only be stirred by the conviction that Europe and democracy have positive implications for them, not just the rich.

Europe’s political battle in Paris may require no less effort and sacrifice than Europe’s military battle in Kyiv.

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