Affirming that history repeats itself is probably too contentious and disputable. However, it’s hard to not recognize some recurring events or patterns, characterized by incredibly similar conditions that let us think to live an historical “deja-vu”.
The 2017 French presidential elections are an example of these recurrences, albeit with some differences. Indeed, inside the political history of France there had been another election when an extreme far right candidate faced a centre-right and pro-Europe one, when the traditional strong Socialist party didn’t manage to gain enough votes on the first round of the election for see its candidate reaching the final ballot marking one of the harshest defeat suffered by the Party, when the electorate blend into a bipartisan barricade with the aim to prevent a far-right victory, which led to one of the highest vow percentage in favour of the rival candidate since the times of Napoleon.
The 2002 Presidential elections gave almost the same choice to make to French electors: vow for the far-right, nationalist, anti-migrants and Eurosceptic Jean Marie Le Pen, founder of the Front National Party or the centre-right and former President Jacques Chirac, who promoted the drafting of the European Constitution and supported a democratizing process of the Union’s institution finally achieved with the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon. As in 2017, French citizens rejected despicable racist and xenophobic appeals cloaked with Nationalist stances, by sticking together against Le Pen, who didn’t win neither one of the 102 French departments on the final second ballot. Indeed, even if the National Front managed to gain more support than the Socialist Party in the first turn, shocking fact if we consider that for the previous 33 years there had usually been a Socialist candidate at the ballot, in the second one Le Pen had few chances to win against Chirac. And here come some differences with the 2017 elections which had as protagonist the centrist pro-Europe Emmanuel Macron and the populist and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean Marie Le Pen. In the second ballot, Mme Le Pen managed to win 33% of votes while her father stopped at 19%.
Indeed, the times had changed and even if there are some peculiar coincidences, these two elections had had totally different meanings and weight. In 2002, both international and national public opinion was upset by the victory of the Front National in the first round, which had one of the lowest turnout in French history (71% of the population casted the ballot): it never happened that someone with so extremist and far-rightist ideas, even colluded with neo-fascist and Vichy nostalgic movements, arrived so close to the Presidency. However, the actual support to the Front National wasn’t enough for let Le Pen win whereas soon after its reaching the second turn unleashed a wave of street protests and a political widespread mobilization which he would never be able to overcome. In 2017, the different appeal of the daughter and the different international circumstances gave to the Front National a more real chance to win. Marine Le Pen used a more moderate and less rigid political discourse than her father, spending a lot of energies for the de-demonization of the Front National. Le Pen’s populism itself has been more nuanced: even if she continued referring to the “French people” and its right of sovereignty, she avoided any direct clash against the press, trying to balance her outsider position, detached from the corrupted political elite, with the reassuring images of a “normal candidate” who knows when to ride masses anger wave and when not. Furthermore, populist and far right appeal, which had already convinced great sectors of electorate all along European countries, had been galvanized by the pro-Brexit victory right before French elections, showing that Euroscepticism is an effective political force who could be more than just an angered minority without a real power against the liberal and European supporter majority. The Union seemed to vacillate after one of its member just decided to turn its back, and Le Pen plausible victory represented even more a mortal threat for Brussels. Therefore, both national and international scenarios led one third of French citizens to vow for Marine Le Pen on the 7th of May 2017. Luckily, as it happened in 2002, other political forces stack together against Le Pen, conceding Macron to win with wide margin. However, those 33% of French population who voted for Le Pen, as the poor performance of traditional parties are alarm bells that Europe as well as the new French President must not ignore. Surely, Macron’s victory is a European Union victory. A decisive battle has been won by the Union but the fight is not over yet, as wasn’t over in 2002. Mostly, because European Union is not out of danger yet. Even if Germans election are not bringing any surprises on the front of the Union support, the two favourite candidates are the present Chancellor Angle Merkel and the former European parliament President Martin Schulz, Italian 2018 upcoming elections represent another serious political risk for Europe. The rise of support for populist and Eurosceptic Five Star Movement (M5S) brought it on the top of the pools, with 4 % points more than the centre- left Democratic Party. M5S is the answer to the wide spread anti-elite grudge feeling, the exasperation after a long economic crisis and a slow and painful recover still ongoing, the blame of the Union bad management of the migrant crisis which is fuelling racist and xenophobe feelings. Even with a M5S victory on the upcoming elections would not bring Italy to leave the Union (as there is no exit-referendum on the party program), having populist and Eurosceptic leader of one of the first six nations who build up Europe would damage not only the external image of the Union but also its already deteriorated effectiveness
Hence, Macron’s victory pushed back an imminent danger, but the Union is not saved yet.
The President sudden step out on the stage of French electoral campaign and therefore on the European affairs brought hope, its victory brought relief while boosted self-confidence and a new trust on the rightness of the European project. However, even if Macron’s great timing had been determinant on the short period, in the future what really will make a difference is the capacity of Europe to learn from this crisis and be able to resolve all its issues. Indeed, Europe is still crumbling under the weight of the several dilemmas and inefficiencies that brought us to the point to fear for its future. Sources of instability are both exogenous and endogenous. The contemporaneity of two crises such the Greek debt and the migrant flow augmented the harmful effects of both. Furthermore, this deleterious combination made more evident the structural inability of the Union to take immediate actions and decisions that require a higher level of executive power. Indeed, in the short term European institutions could effectively implement only minimal compromises which are not enough for solving matters of national interest such as border control, immigration policies or bail-out decisions.
Macron will save Europe only if he could actually change it. Its victory just helped Europe to not fall in a dark chasm of populism, but the Union didn’t move so far away from that abyss. His victory represents a turning point for the Union only if it will be capable to take advantage of this opportunity and resolve the issues that brought it to almost fell. At the same time, replace all our trust and hopes on one single man is not a good idea either. Macron could have lent a hand to Europe, but he is still a man of state, who has before to show to its own electorate that their vows won’t be wasted. Indeed, Macron first attempt to change Europe dealt with a reform inside trade policy that will protect French main industries from foreign (mostly Chinese) aggressive investments. So, even if Macron could do a lot for restructuring the Union, we must not forget that the efforts of one single nation is not enough, as could never represent the interest of the whole European population. We need a deep and wide consensus among all Members over structural reforms that would enable the Union to act more efficiently and promptly. It’s time to creatively rethink the European project, otherwise the Union will be stuck inside the same loop of nationalist feeling insurgences occurring whenever people will feel that the Union is damaging more than improving their daily life. History does not repeat itself. But similar situations may have the same starting conditions: economic difficulties, feelings of being abandoned by our leaders, an uncertain and dark vision of the future would likely push electorate to search for their own saviour. The new elected President Macron has been the winner of these elections, gaining the title of saviour of our time. But Europe should not deceive itself: we are not saving yet.