Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Opinion | Conversations and insights about the moment.

Credit…Benjamin Cremel/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Political observers crave a narrative — the more global, the better. And as the U.S. election descends into a state of chaos, American liberals looking across the Atlantic for some sense of context will see alarms flashing red. In France, a snap National Assembly election has delivered a distressing first-round victory for Marine Le Pen, long the bête noire of European liberalism, and a humiliating defeat for President Emmanuel Macron, almost a caricature of the continental elite.

But in Britain, another surprise snap election, to be held Thursday, is likely to produce a very different outcome, complicating efforts to divine a single meaning for this “year of democracy,” in which more than half the world’s population will, by December, have gone to the polls.

At present, the British elections appear set to deliver for Labour the most thumping victory any party has achieved in any mature democracy for at least a generation. The latest forecasts say a 3-to-1 parliamentary majority is not just possible, but likely. Some suggest a 4-to-1 margin is plausible, and Conservative efforts to warn voters of a coming left-wing supermajority appear to have backfired, making them instead much more likely to support Labour.

Keir Starmer, the presumptive prime minister, has run a conspicuously anti-populist campaign — those assessing each party’s manifestoes have noted Labour is promising less spending than the Tories — which means that a Labour victory may still be more an indictment of British conservatives than an endorsement of its progressives. (And the party is expected to only win about 40 percent of the national vote in a low-turnout election.) But after 14 years of Tory government, a 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 Labour Parliament would still be a truly historic shift.

These look like contradictory outcomes, and a reminder that any country’s elections are complex, idiosyncratic and contingent. But together, the two elections seem also to affirm that the great meme of global politics at the moment is not exactly right or left but something more like crude anti-incumbency.

For now, all worried eyes are on France. But that election, whose second round will be held this weekend, may not be a simple referendum on Le Pen’s 21st-century blood nationalism. It also says a lot about the strategic dysfunction embedded in French party politics and the weakness of old-fashioned establishment power, visible in many places beyond France.

Le Pen’s National Rally is in a stronger position than it has ever enjoyed before, but in previous elections, its candidates have been outflanked in the second round after opponents consolidated into an alliance to defeat them. This time, the frictions between Macron’s third-place party and the progressive New Popular Front (which finished second in the first round) have made forming an alliance more difficult — a troubling sign that the French establishment may now functionally prefer a hard-right victory to an alliance with the left, and another mark of the fringe-ward drift of the continent’s bourgeois center-right.

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