By Axel Krause
Paris, December 1, 2016
Germany’s influential magazine Der Spiegel online last week proclaimed Donald Trump’s victory not only a « political earthquake » at home, but « bolstered both right-wing and left-wing populist parties in Europe » because they share « a rejection of the establishment and the liberal order. » And asked readers: « Are they about to change the world? »
In a real sense, with caveats, the answer is – yes, they sure are trying in many Western democratic countries, and some are succeeding; in India for example, while triggering widespread fears for traditional, 20th century democracy in virtually every European country.
In a rare, grave display of political concern, European Central Bank president, Italy’s Mario Draghi has warned that populism is wrecking Europe’s ability to respond to immigration, terrorism and border protection, undoing progress, and undermining the region’s long-term stability, according to Politico Europe, citing yesterday his interview with Spain’s respected daily El País. « There will be consequences, that much is certain, » he warned.
And how will the growing uncertainty affect European values as « populist movements gain traction? » he was quoted as asking. The partial, immediate answer is twofold:
The first, earthquake-like wake-up call came, as Draghi and most observers agree, the surprise, controversial referendum vote of June 23 in which millions of British voters agreed to end the nation’s membership in the European Union.
The second was the surprise victory this past Sunday of France’s fiercely conservative former prime minister Francois Fillon (see picture) in a national, two-round primary, and who now is expected to battle, among others, a Socialist – unknown for the moment, as President Hollande has just announced he will not run again for the French Presidency – and far-right Marine Le Pen for the nation’s presidency.
Ms. Le Pen, upon learning of Trump’s victory was among the first Europeans to send him a warm, congratulatory message; while her politically-active, and attractive, blonde, 26-year-old niece and National Front leader, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, announced she had agreed to work with then-Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon who described her as « the rising star » on the nation’s beleaguered political scene.
« We think that France is a place where we need to be with its young entrepreneurs and the women of the Le Pen family, » Bannon was quoted by Politico Europe; noting it could also prove an opening for his Breitbart News reportedly seeking expansion in Europe.
Yet even as the New York Times‘ international edition heralded the Fillon victory with the headline « Populist wave rolls in France, » and as Europe’s far and middle-right movements and parties praised Trump’s feat – also in Germany, the Netherlands, , England, Austria, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic plus Russia – the underlying issues and questions put and being put to voters are deeply rooted in a decidedly non-American historical reality of differing social, cultural, political and economic systems and where populist, ultra-conservative movements opposing, for example, the euro, same-sex marriage and abortions, are supported discreetly by millions of Roman Catholics.
Take predominantly Catholic Austria and Italy where crucial votes will take place this Sunday.
In the former, it’s about re-voting on the 2015 presidential election and where left-leaning environmentalist and 71-year old former economics professor, Alexander Van der Bellen, is widely expected to lose to far-right anti-immigration Freedom Party leader, the 45-year old Norbert Hofer; who, if he wins, and though Austria’s president has virtually no political power, would become Europe’s first far-right head of state since World War Two.
And despite Adolf Hitler look-like posters in Vienna proclaiming Hofer as the incarnation of « Austria with Heart and Soul, » and, as one of Hofer’s aides recently confided, according to Der Spiegel, has « reached out » to Trump’s transition team in Washington.
In neighboring Italy, in what the New York Times today described as « one of those fateful votes… that have spread angst through Western democracies, » the vote Sunday is a referendum that if approved, would impose far-reaching constitutional reforms that would, among other things, reduce the powers of Italy’s senate, reducing the number of members from 315 to 100, for example.
The outspoken, populist, far-right leader former television star Beppe Grillo and his Five-Stars party is widely expected to win; it could also trigger a financial crisis if Italy’s voters do vote « no » as the vote is very much about Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who had threatened to resign if he loses.
The Financial Times, in a widely-reported article earlier this week, warned that a sudden collapse of political support for Renzi – whom we described in this space in February 2014 as Italy’s youngest, left-leaning most-dynamic leader of the postwar era – could well destabilize the nation’s banking system; claiming that eight banks risk bankruptcy.
Indeed, as Italian bankers and think tanks have warned, the growing power of Grillo’s party that already controls the city of Rome, could well lead to an Italian-style Brexit he favors. His party’s constant anti-euro proclamations in light of estimates that the nation’s banking system is staggering under some 360 billion euros in bad loans, amid polls indicating that some 30% of Italians favor a return to the lira, are telling indicators.
Consider what Der Spiegel described as a « horror scenario » envisioned by a top European Commission official – a G-7 summit next year, with the following around the table: Trump, Le Pen, Boris Johnson, and Grillo. But will Renzi resign?
Earlier today, according to Italy’s news agency ANSA, he told Mediaset TV that if the No vote wins, « we’ll keep 950 posts and the politicians will say I voted for the reform, but the citizens decided…(and thus) I won’t be playing the game if we leave the country as it is now… » An Italian, politically-savvy architect friend explained that the somewhat ambiguous statement doesn’t mean he will resign, just possibly only giving up on constitutional reform.
So what about France’s Fillon? Rightly characterized by Politico Europe as « Thatcherite with a thing for Russia. » And Angela Merkel facing a parliamentary election next September, and possible defeat, amid lingering but strong, right wing-led opposition to her open, flexible policy of welcoming immigrants from Africa and the Middle East.
The results of the first-round voting for France’s next president on April 23 will give us a clearer idea of how the two, front-running Fillon and Le Pen do in the race for the Elysée Palace. He brushes off comparisons to Margaret Thatcher with one-liners like « always glad to be compared to someone who saved her country. »
Maybe so, amid charges by opponents on the left that his longtime strategy as president is archaic and brutal, but deeply, worrying conservative – cutting some 500,000 public-sector jobs, ending the 35-hour work week, reducing taxes and the nation’s debt ; banning adoption for gay couples, and who according to Politico Europe’s Nicholas Vinocur, will be hitting back at Marine Le Pen as a « false conservative. » While cultivating blue-collar workers and her lack of experience in governing, while engaging in some form of dialogue with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and engaging with France’s EU partners to streamline the European Commission and maintaining military-defense ties with Great Britain.
« Defending our values » is a recurring Fillon theme, explaining partly his recent primary success and, somewhat similarly in the United States, the fact that, as the New York Times noted November 28, « the pollsters had failed to detect a hidden yearning for the restoration of a mythical, older France, rural and dominated by the values of a conservative Roman Catholic Church. »
So what about a counterattack – in Germany for example – where Merkel, according to Anna Sauebrey, an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, faces angry voters who, writing in today’s New York Times international edition, are « tired of the orthodoxy that globalization – and with it mass migration, wage flight and deindustrialization – is inevitable…Ms. Merkel’s brilliance is to see a third way : to dispose of ideologies on both sides and to shoot for a pragmatic comprise. » And that, she proposed in a speech last week, means addressing education and budget consolidation. « We have to shape globalization along with others. That’s what I’m advocating. »
Axel Krause, longtime corresponedent, bureau chief and editor for Business Week and the Interational Heralde Tribune in Paris, Moscow and Washington, is the Paris-based contributing editor of TransAtlantic Matgazine in Paris. And is the author of Inside the New Europe and a regular contributor to French radio and television programs.