By Muhammad Sarmad Zia
With Emmanuel Macron’s win against the right wing candidate, Marine Le Pen, Europe has once again shown a promise – of equality, fraternity and liberty and – that the United States seems to have forgotten and forsaken. It is not just a victory for Macron, but for the people of France – majority of whom still believe in a just, equitable and free society. Le Pen, the leader of the far right National Front party – sought to take France out of Europe, held anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim views, was against immigration and was stringently against even providing free basic health care to the illegal immigrants in the country.
But the people of France out rightly rejected Le Pen and embraced Macron. That he won with a decisive 66 percent of the vote against Le Pen’s 34 percent showed that France is neither willing nor ready to accept a leader that pursues a far right narrative – essentially, opposed to everything they had learned over the last few decades. The history of WWII is not one that France is unfamiliar with. It was not so long ago that France was invaded by a fascist Germany aiming to subordinate it as a state. This time, France’s own fascist and right wing politicians tried to attack it from within. They were taught an important lesson that French electorate had seen enough of Europe’s division, hatred and wars.
Prior to France’s elections, another founder of the European Union, Netherlands elected Mark Rutte as its Prime Minister. Like Macron, Mark Rutte’s main opponent, Geert Wilders was also a far right politician who had planned on leading the exit of Netherlands from the European Union. His hatred towards Muslims was visible in his election manifesto which aimed at shutting down mosques and even to the extent of banning the Holy Quran from stores and bookshops. However, Geert lost and the people of Europe sighed in relief. The threat of a right-wing party coming into power in an important country like Netherlands, could have essentially translated into the downfall of the EU. Earlier on, in the backdrop of Trump’s election to the US’ presidency and the ‘Yes’ vote on Brexit, it was being assumed that Europe too, would follow suit. Trump’s ban on immigration from a few mainly Muslim countries, his anti-climate change rhetoric and harsh comments on media, were just a few wrong examples of the changes the new administration introduced to the world.
What needs to be underscored at this time is the importance of peoples’ partisanship when nationalist, fascist and alt-right parties and their leaders seek to divide the world on the basis of ethnicity and religion. The outcome of both French and Dutch elections brought into focus the margin of people who did not conform to the rightist agenda of hate, xenophobia and separatism. Moreover, Le Pen and Geert’s failure to capture majority votes shows they were unable to capitalize on their Euroskeptic, anti-immigration and ultra-nationalistic agendas. Earlier, the two-month period between the Dutch and French elections also saw the decision by the top European court of allowing employers to ban religious symbols such as headscarves, mostly worn by Muslim women. The mere impinging on basic human rights such as freedom to exercise religious customs or choice of dress, illustrated the narrow-mindedness miring Europe’s vision of equality, freedom and justice. However, both France and Netherlands rose above the clouds of bigotry that were engulfing the European political system – that had precipitated with Britain’s exit from the EU.
However, three issues must be accounted for; Europe is going through a transitional phase wherein its states have become embroiled in foreign conflicts which has triggered mass immigration as well as militancy and terrorism in the region. Secondly, the rise of neo-Nazi and fascist political groups on what used to be an all-embracing political platform in Western Europe, such as France’s National Front, Austria’s Freedom Party, the Party for Freedom in Netherlands, United Kingdom’s Independence Party and Sweden’s Democrats, is ostensibly a paradigm shift to what Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, recently termed “galloping populism.” He asserts that the European Union must come together to defeat this unprecedented threat emerging from all corners of Europe. Lastly, even the mainstream parties have seemed to jump on the rightist bandwagon in some areas of Europe to mitigate their concerns; France banned headscarves and ‘burkinis’ whereas the Danish authorities went as far as confiscating valuables from immigrants for providing them with accommodation in the country.
Whilst Europe has reversed the domino of Brexit – for now – and elected reasonable leaders, the long term implications of rise of rightwing aspirations would pose a huge challenge for the European Union to solve. Despite Macron’s win in France, thirty-four percent of the population still voted for a Far-right party which in itself is a cause for concern. Similarly in the Netherlands, where coalition parties generally form a government, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom secured 20 seats out of 150 seats in the House of Representatives. While it may not appear to be an impressive number but it must be noted that the winning party secured 33 seats out of a total 150.
Similarly, compared to the French election of 2002, the National Front secured 17.8 percent of the seats, which were almost half the seats Marine Le Penn won in 2017. This is essentially an example of the rising support for right-wing parties in Europe. For Europe’s mainstream politicians, it is crucial that they denounce all such fascist parties and persuade their respective peoples to delink themselves from fascist and anti-European Union parties. At a time where there is an increasing endorsement of neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration and alt-right politics and politicians, the rational and the sane minds of Europe must come together not only to disassociate themselves from such rhetoric but also to educate Europe about diversity, fraternity and acceptance of all colors, faiths and peoples. As an example, otherwise, the US stands as an example where lack of initiative to educate the American people led to Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House. Thus, it is a turning point for Europe where human values must be made a norm rather than a controversy, so that the future of Europe remains bright.
Muhammad Sarmad Zia is a Research Assistant at Centre for International Strategic Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan.