As expected, herrenvolk populist Marine Le Pen survived the first round of voting in Sunday’s French presidential election, and will now continue into the runoff against liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron. But although Le Pen and Macron finished a hair’s breadth apart in Round One (with 21.5 percent of the vote and 23.75 percent, respectively), their next engagement isn’t likely to be so close. Polls of a head-to-head contest between the two finalists consistently show Macron ahead by 20 points or more.
This is less a testament to Macron’s personal magnetism than to his opponent’s toxicity. In fact, two of the main runners-up who didn’t make the cut, socialist Benoît Hamon and rigid conservative François Fillon, threw their support to Macron on Sunday as a check against Le Pen. As Hamon put it, in explaining his endorsement: “I make a distinction between a political adversary and an enemy of the Republic.”
(Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who enjoyed a spike in popularity during the final weeks of the campaign, apparently recognizes no such distinction. He declined to endorse a run-off candidate.)
If Le Pen suffers a double-digit loss in the final vote on May 6, it will be the latest in a string of disappointments for white populists across the West. Following a couple of major shock victories in 2016 — on the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the U.S. election that catapulted President Donald Trump into the White House — Western ethno-nationalist movements have struggled to consolidate and expand their gains.
Their first big test after Trump’s win, December’s Austrian presidential election, ended in tears when pro-Europe liberal Alexander van der Bellen edged out Norbert Hofer, head of the crypto-fascist Freedom Party. Then, last month, the anti-Islam demagogue Geert Wilders performed below expectations in the latest Dutch parliamentary election. Though his party continues to exert an inexorable tug on the center of politics in the Netherlands, it will not be a formal partner in government any time soon.
Things are looking even worse for the hard right in Germany, where the 2017 federal election is shaping up into a two-way race between the pro-Europe, center-right incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel and the pro-Europe Social Democrat Martin Schultz. The nativist party AfD has seen its popular support collapse over the past few months, and recent internal strife will probably exacerbate the problem. Last week, AfD head Frauke Petry dropped out of the race, handing control over her party’s future to its more outwardly extreme and politically maladroit elements.
Meanwhile, Trump’s early tenure in office has been less than a ringing success, particularly when it comes to the signature policies that made him an avatar for transnational white populism. His attempt to ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries has been an abject failure. Efforts to fund a border wall with Mexico aren’t faring much better. And recent opinion surveys paint Trump as the most unpopular freshman president of the modern era.
That leaves the United Kingdom, which is still careening toward an irrevocable breach with the rest of Europe. In 10 Downing Street, long-term right-wing hegemony seems all but assured. The governing Conservative Party’s main adversary, Labour, is on the verge of a total collapse; no other national party is in a position to take its place as standard bearer of the left.
But the situation in London is a bit of a fluke. The United Kingdom — unlike the United States, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Austria — doesn’t have much in the way of credible opposition to its nationalist right. The Labour Party leadership, after all, barely put up a fight against Brexit.
Elsewhere, broad-based liberal coalitions serve as a serious check on the ambitions of the white populists. In the face of a resurgent nativist right, electoral majorities have rallied around pluralist and internationalist values. It turns out that crypto-fascism, despite its recent gains, still doesn’t enjoy the popularity it would require for electoral dominance.
There’s some irony in the fact that nativists often claim to be defending “Western Civilization” or “traditional values” against corrupting influences. Many voters in advanced democracies grew up in multi-ethnic societies that embrace, albeit imperfectly, the principles of political liberalism. Across the United States and much of Europe, those are still the “traditional values” that can swing elections.