All political eyes are on France this week as President Emmanuel Macron endeavours to salvage another term in office. The issue will be decided in two weeks once the second round of presidential voting is concluded.
But the world isn’t focused on France primarily for politics. Instead, it is keeping its eye on the far-right extremists to see if they make any serious gains and begin unravelling a fragile democratic coalition of countries, of which France is essential. The last contest showed Macron defeating his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen and claiming he would unite the country and restore French enthusiasm. That was five years ago. This week it was clear that it failed.
The outright challenge of France’s far-right mirrors what is happening elsewhere. America is the most obvious example, but right-wing struggles within Britain’s Conservative Party and the sketchy Viktor Orban win in Hungary a week ago revealed that while the world was distracted by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, extremists were busy with their next round of challenges. Even Poland, which has earned admiration for its acceptance of millions of Ukrainian refugees, is watching the rise of the Law and Justice Party and its harsh anti-immigrant policies.
Across the world, in what seemed to be prosperous democracies, this newest challenge from the alt-right is gaining force and turning traditional political tenures into fragile affairs. The extremist parties are strikingly similar: nationalistic, with a constant disregard for international law, and anti-liberal everything. They have come to be termed as “illiberal” and are bent on undermining any semblance of the world order previously established by the prosperous West.
It’s interesting that the extremists maintain that they are practicing true democracy and all of them are willing to run for office within the democratic framework to prove it. Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi Jinping also claim to be legitimately elected to office by their people.
All of this is of growing concern to the centre and leftist promoters in the West. In Canada, Conservative Party leadership candidate Jean Charest maintained that his key opponent, Pierre Poilievre disqualified himself from contention because of his support of the illegal trucker blockades. That his challenge hardly raised a ripple reveals just how much traditional politics has changed in this country.
Around the globe, the sight of democratically elected leaders denying citizens their natural rights has become the new normal, redefining democracy itself in the process. Under threat is “liberal” democracy, a system providing unassailable rights to citizens regardless of which government is in power. The assault on this tradition, primarily from the radical Right and occasionally from its counterpart on the Left, is stripping democracy of much of the substance that was taught to previous generations in schools.
For many years, we witnessed such upshot democracies in developing nations, among leaders who feigned democratic principles to legitimize themselves to Western institutions while at the same time denying the citizens of their rights. That pattern is now moving into the mainstream of democracy in the West and demands to be heard.
France’s Macron understands this all too well and he spent much of the last few years making accommodations with right-wing extremists in his effort to keep the nation together. It was a direction that angered and confused his former centrist and left-wing supporters and has lessened his chances in this election cycle. He even admitted to “failing to contain” this rise of the far-right when he had the opportunity.
Ultimately, it will be constitutions themselves that might fall by the wayside. They were designed to guarantee the rights of all citizens under all forms of government. It takes governments and the leaders with the courage to protect their constitutions if democracy is to have an actual future. But to show such leadership demands a following – something that is slowly ebbing in Europe, North America and elsewhere.
It is citizens, not its leaders, that determine democracy’s actual legitimacy, and presently the global population is a discontented lot. As long as people can’t afford places to live, climate change is inadequately addressed, poverty escalates, and people lose meaning in their lives, it won’t matter whether the liberal or illiberal version of democracy prevails. Nevertheless, a new form of democracy is rising worldwide that cares little for rights and more for authoritarianism. This has now become the faultline that will decide our global future.