Andelman: Europe's moderate center needs to watch out
The radical right can smell blood on both sides of the Atlantic
Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The opinions in this article belong to the writer.
Europe’s rapidly expanding – and increasingly frightening – radical right is looking to unspool a similar game plan to the one Donald Trump used to ride to power in the US. The moderate, but rapidly shrinking, center on both sides of the Atlantic had better watch out.
Sadly, just when this reality suddenly came crashing home in America, few mainstream politicos seem prepared to accept this phenomenon in Europe.
Yet it should come as no surprise that Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing Front National, was the first European politician seen racing to Twitter to congratulate Donald Trump within moments of his passing the 270 electoral-vote threshold as dawn was breaking over Western Europe.
And it’s no surprise that Britain’s Nigel Farage, leader of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party, was the first foreign politician seen racing to Trump Tower in New York to bask in the reflected glory of Trump’s success.
Moreover, each leader has a right-wing counterpart in a host of other European Union nations – from the Netherlands to Hungary to Greece and beyond – several of which will be facing their own elections all too soon.
The reality is that there is a growing wave of support for the radical right in all its disparate iterations. These movements are reshaping a host of national dialogues.
So much so in Britain that London’s Daily Telegraph reported Monday that Prime Minister Theresa May is facing a backlash within her own cabinet for several of her closest confidants dismissing Farage as an “irrelevance.”
None of these “radical” leaders, it would seem, are irrelevant any longer. All have suddenly become very much a central part of the national dialogue across Europe. Their aim: to destroy the European Order as it exists today.
Each is seeking, in one fashion or another, to separate his or her nation from Europe and thereby hasten an end to the grand experiment of federalism. Swarms of refugees, rising tax burdens and enraged farmers are all elements of this unease.
Here is where the rapidly shrinking center needs to pay very close attention. This once overwhelmingly dominant bloc should have much to learn from the failure of Hillary Clinton and her Democratic team that so badly misjudged the temper of these times and the voters they took for granted.
Unlike Trump, the European right is comprised of real revolutionaries who’ve been thinking and plotting a whole lot longer – generations in some cases – than Trump World, which has suddenly captured large swaths of the European imagination.
And the stakes are arguably even higher in Europe, where the entire European Union may be on the line. Most of these far-right nationalists, led by Le Pen and Farage, want plainly and simply to break it up, returning the continent to the day of fragmented and competing fiefdoms, bickering and disaster.
All are hoping for the same game plan to play out in the fast-approaching 2017 French presidential election – as it did in the US – marking a dramatic break with decades of precedent.
Traditionally, in the first round, with dozens of candidates on the ballot, the French fringe right snags as much as 20 to 30 percent of the vote. Some years that even gets them into the second round, where the top two candidates then go head-to-head. Historically, the fringe right candidate then gets the same percentage of the vote as in round one, leaving the moderate, rational professional candidate to sweep into office with a landslide.
That happened in 2002, when Marine’s father, Jean Marie Le Pen, went up against President Jacques Chirac, who was seeking a second term. In the first round, Chirac eked out 19.88 percent of the vote in a 17-way contest. Le Pen wound up second with 16.86 percent. In the second, head-to-head round, Le Pen captured 17.8 percent and Chirac soared to 82.2 percent.
But don’t count on that happening in May 2017.
It’s by no means clear that the Trump model won’t be replicated in France. That’s because Europe’s vast center is presenting for office the same, shopworn re-treads of candidates and platforms that they’ve been trotting out since I first covered Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1980s.
I had lunch in Paris on Saturday with a member of an early Sarkozy cabinet. When asked who he’d support for next year’s presidential election, he replied it would likely have to be Alain Juppe, wrinkling his mouth as though he’d just swallowed a lemon whole.
Indeed, Juppe has been around French politics since he first served Chirac on the Paris city council in the 1970s. Since then, he’s held virtually every office in France except president. He’s an experienced, mainstream politician who moderates will vote for because the alternative is too awful to stomach. Remind you of anyone?
The big question is whether France is ready for a return of the Republicans, or another round of Socialist medicine that hasn’t worked either. At the fringes, many are just waiting for their big chance.
The moderate center – or what is left of it in Europe – needs to watch out. The radical right can smell blood.