Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French Presidential elections is being described as the triumph of globalisation over nationalism. It definitely marks a comeback for the pro-globalisation narrative. But it also points to the increasing possibility of a polarisation in the world order among pro- and anti-globalisation blocs. Macron is an unknown political actor. His meteoric rise and success would create great expectations from him. Whether he would be able to deliver or not depends on the Parliamentary majority he picks up for implementing his policies. But he has become the poster-boy of globalisation by emerging triumphant in a bitterly fought election notwithstanding his unabashed support for ‘uncontrolled globalisation’. This is remarkable at a point in time when political advocates of globalisation have become reticent in pronouncing its virtues. Brexit and the US elections were back-to-back blows that globalisation found hard to stomach.
It should recover faster after discovering a new saviour in Emmanuel Macron. The biggest shot-in-the-arm Macron delivered to globalisation was in the ‘dirty’ Presidential debate on television before the final vote on May 7. Future analysts might note the debate as a turning point in the history of globalisation. Some of the broadsides hurled by Macron and Marine Le Pen at each other were no doubt fuelled by high political tensions than personal animosity. But these aptly described the negative traits of both the critics and supporters of globalisation.
Macron described his opponent as ill-informed and dangerously nationalistic—attributes shared by globalisation bashers all across the world. In turn, Le Pen called Macron arrogant, cold-eyed and a ‘smirking banker’—typical traits of policy and business elites who have incurred widespread wrath for being immune to the anguish of the left-behind and chasing profits in their narrow worlds. But Macron rose well above the globalisation stereotype and made a strong case for it by charging Le Pen for trying to sell the voters the absurd notion that while globalisation could be good for all the others, it wasn’t so for France.
Macron was able to successfully expose a fundamental flaw in the nationalist counter-narrative of globalisation: opening up is good for others, not for us. Nationalist leaders have never explained why their countries should refrain from globalising if others were not hurt by doing so. The nationalist narrative has focused on the damage that the rest of the world has done to home countries, but not on how and why the latter could have turned the tables. This is precisely where Macron was able to pin down Le Pen decisively on the mat by laying bare her empty cupboard on plans for reviving the French economy. Le Pen’s strategy, like most other nationalist reform agendas, was focused more on emotion than economics. It is becoming increasingly clear from examples across the world that promising jobs is very different from delivering jobs.
The fact that economic globalisation by expanding markets and moving people to jobs is still the best way forward for generating employment is brushed under the carpet by the high decibels of nationalist arguments. Macron has successfully called the bluff on this. Le Pen’s comments prior to the election drew attention to global nationalists converging to the notion of a ‘New World’. She felt she was France’s best choice in talking to a ‘New World’ comprising Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Theresa May and Narendra Modi—leaders of countries turning their backs on free trade and competition. What she was obviously alluding to was her being a natural fit in a global coalition of nationalist leaders opposed to globalisation.
It is notable that Le Pen’s list of leaders did not include President Xi Jinping of China, who has lately emerged as the most vocal proponent of free trade, notwithstanding his hard nationalist views otherwise. Nevertheless, Le Pen’s views point to the growing polarisation among leaders of major and emerging global powers in their outlook on globalisation. Macron’s victory and revival of globalisation might accentuate the polarisation. Down the line, the global order might reorganise around country coalitions bonded on their opposition, or allegiance, to globalisation. The division might become as ideologically distinct as the one that prevailed after the Second World War.
The short-term impact of Macron’s victory is relief for the EU project, stability for the euro and continuation of several liberal policies that Europe has been practising for years. Over time, however, Macron and much of Europe might find themselves getting more and more distant from many other countries including close allies like the US and the UK. This would depend on the outcome of upcoming elections in Europe. Angela Merkel’s victory in the German elections in September can conclusively halt the march of nationalism in the continent. But the fault lines between ideologies would remain distinct. Between Macron and Merkel, Europe might have to take on the mantle of globalisation against many in the rest of the world.