Much of the world heaved a sigh of relief when Emmanuel Macron emerged victorious in France’s presidential election last weekend. His victory over the National Front’s Marine Le Pen was seen by many as a sign that the rise of the far right in Europe had finally been arrested.
Even far off places such as East Asia had reason to cheer, as markets responded to the reassurance: stock indexes across the region ticked up.
But before the celebrations grow too loud, we should take note: the music stops here for European politics.
As David Brady, a political scientist in Stanford University, writes in The American Interest: “The rise of rightist, anti-immigrant parties is not exclusive to France. In the June 2015 elections in Denmark, the anti-immigration, anti-Brussels People’s Party won a quarter of the vote, while in Austria, the Freedom Party won more than 20 per cent in the September 2013 elections, the country’s most recent.”
Finland, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Switzerland all have similar movements, as does Italy, whose Northern League (Lega Nord) doubled its share of the vote in 2010 to become Silvio Berlusconi’s major coalition partner.
And instability in the region is not limited to the anti-immigrant right; it has also affected the left. Indeed, long before Macron’s victory, dissatisfaction with stagnant economies blamed on austerity polices imposed by the European Union led to the rise of far-left parties Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.
And then there is the chaos in Britain, a major pro-trade country, where traditional politics has been turned on its head by the vote to leave the European Union. An impending general election on June 8 looks likely to empower the Conservative Party to take a tougher line against the European Union, even at the expense of the trade advantages it enjoys as a member state of the common market.
France’s election therefore offers just one window into the growing dissatisfaction, much of which centres on international trade, and that thought should be sobering even to those in East Asia celebrating the stock market gains.
For, the turning inwards of the West comes just as China turns outward with its Belt and Road Initiative that envisions a Eurasia connected through infrastructure and united in a China-centred trade network.
It’s worth noting that, with the exception of Turkey, not one of the leaders of Europe appears interested in participating in the Belt and Road summit in Beijing this weekend. Twenty-eight Asian leaders will attend.
But the trans-continental ambitions of the Belt and Road plan cannot be fully realised without European interest – and even if they could, East Asia cannot rely on the Belt and Road alone.
East Asia is home to some of the world’s most trade dependent countries. This applies as much to behemoths like China, Japan and South Korea – where intra-regional trade is at nearly 80 per cent, outstripping the 67 per cent for members of the North American Free Trade Agreement – as it does to cosmopolitan cities like Hong Kong. Singapore’s GDP is nearly three times more dependent on global commerce than any other state, making it particularly vulnerable to the systemic perturbations of world trade. When world trade goes south, so do these economies – the behemoths of China, Japan and South Korea included.
This is, of course, why the Belt and Road Initiative makes so much sense. It tries to forestall the inevitable, the time when the world turns anti-trade, leaving China to clutch at the proverbial straws. If there are no markets, new ones must be created now, even if the new future is three decades away.
Whether it has come soon enough is another matter. With Brexit likely to come into full force in 2019 and far right parties on the rise in much of Europe, even Macron’s election can be seen as whistling in the wind.
As Brady, the political scientist, points out: “In France, the [National Front] won .05 per cent of the vote in 1973. In 1981, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the [National Front] tried to run for president, but failed to meet the minimum requirements.
“In 2012, Marine Le Pen received 18 per cent of the presidential vote. Two years later, the National Front won 12 cities in the 2014 mayoral elections and finished first in the European parliamentary elections with 24.9 per cent of the vote and 24 of France’s 74 seats.”
Last weekend, Marine Le Pen won 35 per cent of the vote.
In other words, since the 1970s, the National Front has steadily gained – and continues to gain – based on its anti-globalisation stance. It may have lost an election, but it is not losing steam. A third of France is in thrall to protectionism.
This is something even Macron realises, saying after his victory he understood the “anxiety and frustrations of the people on the ground, and why they opted for extremes too”.
WATCH: Macron’s victory speech
Macron may have claimed 65 per cent of the votes – a ‘landslide’ according to some of the more hysterical media reports – but the lesson to take from France is not that Macron won “big”, and the centrists prevailed.
The key is to see his win in a historical context. From virtually zero votes in the 1970s, the far right has become a staple feature in both French and European politics.
Unless the EU is deaf and dumb, the member states must become cautiously protectionist if they are to prevent the far right from making further gains.
China and East Asia may have entered the age of the Belt and Road – but it is an era in which Europe’s tilt to the right can no longer be ignored. ■
Phar Kim Beng is a former scholar of the Japan Foundation and president of Echo Strategic Insight