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What the French election tells us about the rise of populism

This is not an existential crisis for Western democracy.

Presidential Candidate Emmanuel Macron Hosts A Meeting At Parc Des Expositions In Paris Photo by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

The recent election in France has, once again, raised questions about the political fate of Europe — and of the West more generally.

In France, the election results were more or less what pollsters expected: Centrist independent Emmanuel Macron and far-right populist Marine Le Pen advanced to the second and final round of voting.

Macron and Le Pen have almost nothing in common, save for their outsider status. Like many recent elections across Europe, particularly the Brexit referendum, this was less about left-right economic issues and more about a deep cultural divide.

Although Le Pen is likely to lose on May 7, her relative success is yet another sign that the populist backlash in Europe is real and pervasive. What remains to be seen, though, is whether this backlash is truly a threat to liberal democracy.

Pippa Norris is a political scientist at Harvard University and an expert on the comparative politics of Europe. I reached out to her this week to help think through some of the broader narratives around the recent elections in Europe and North America.

Her response put things in a useful — and non-alarmist — context. There are, according to Norris, two ways to analyze the global surge in populism. The first is to look at the impact in hybrid regimes, or countries that have adopted some form of democratic rule but have not fully liberalized:

If we go globally and think about populism around the world, we can clearly see how it's been succeeding in creative real disruptive changes — whether it's in Turkey or Hungary or Venezuela or the Philippines. You can see how populist politicians have really pushed back against liberal democracy.

But we have to remember that this is happening in what you might call hybrid states — these were never full democracies or full autocracies. They were in that gray zone and were therefore fragile. And now many of these countries have gone backward, and that's a serious concern.

But if we look at how more developed liberal democracies have handled the populist shocks, we get a slightly more encouraging picture:

Established democracies, however, have been resilient in the sense that either mainstream parties have taken the rhetoric and ideas of the extreme and absorbed them, keeping some form of stability even though the policies are obviously going to have to adapt, but policy change is not a problem for democracy, whereas changes to the party structure or threats on human rights or the constitution are serious hazards.

We can see mature democracies more or less sustaining these shocks around the world — from the Netherlands to Britain to Germany to France to America. This could change rather quickly, of course, but so far this has been the case. There are upcoming elections in a host of countries, and we have to pay close attention to what happens.

The state of American democracy, Norris adds, is worrisome but still intact:

In America, we see a picture of incompetence and lack of unity, which has stymied any attempts at radical change, but there is still massive uncertainty, especially on foreign policy. Still, though, it's only been two months, so it's a little early to jump to any conclusions. What we can say is that political and civil institutions are still responding as they’re designed to respond, and that’s a good thing.

There is, then, an emergent populism sweeping across Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. But it is not an existential crisis for Western democracy — not yet, at least.

So while there is something truly cross-national and cross-continental happening, the effects are not equally distributed among countries. Some are faring better than others. For now, it appears constitutional democracies are responding as they should.

If, as expected, Le Pen loses the final round of the French election on May 7, that will be yet another victory for the forces of centrism.