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Macron win in France boosts hopes of turn in populist tide

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The election victory of French pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron has raised hopes among liberal democrats that the populist and anti-globalisation juggernaut behind Brexit and Donald Trump is losing momentum.

Some hailed Macron’s defeat of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen as “three-nil” after moderate politicians also beat extremists in Austria and the Netherlands in recent elections.

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For them, Macron’s victory brought badly needed relief after last year’s shock election results in Britain and the United States, widely seen as revolts against “establishment” candidates and institutions.

While Trump has vowed to put “America first” and curtail immigration and free trade, and Britain has turned its back on the European Union, the liberal Macron has pledged economic reforms for a France at the heart of the European project.

In Europe’s other big election this year, the German vote in September, centre-right Chancellor Angela Merkel is leading in the polls while the fringe anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is losing steam.

Merkel said Macron “carries the hopes of millions” in Europe, speaking ahead of the upcoming G7 and G20 summits in which EU nations will now be able to present a united front against Trump’s protectionist stance.

“After Brexit and Trump’s victory, the Western world and Europe have been spared another political earthquake,” said German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, adding that Europe had dodged the “nightmare” of a far-right leader in the Elysee Palace.

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The New York Times said that France, like other major democracies, faced the challenge of “many people feeling marginalised by globalisation, economic stagnation, an unresponsive government, unemployment, faceless terrorism and a tide of immigrants”.

However, French voters had opted for a “future in Europe rather than in resentful isolation” and delivered “a victory of hope and optimism over fear and reaction”, said the newspaper, which has been sharply critical of Trump.

– ‘Moderate forces’ –

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Eurosceptics have been on the rise on a continent badly rattled by the eurozone debt crisis and the mass refugee influx that peaked in 2015 and angered especially eastern EU members on the so-called Balkans route.

In Poland, the right-wing and anti-EU Law and Justice party took power in 2015, while in Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban has openly sparred with Brussels.

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Last June came Britain’s stunning vote to leave the EU, while in Austria a far-right candidate was only narrowly beaten for the presidency.

Europe’s right-wing populists were further emboldened by Trump’s victory in US elections in November.

However, the tide appears to be turning this year, starting with the defeat in March in the Netherlands of anti-Islam candidate Geert Wilders.

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After Macron’s win, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, tweeted: “Kick off … Austria. Quarter-final: Stable Netherlands. Semi-final: La France en Marche!”

If the final is the German election, Merkel also has cause for optimism.

Her party scored another strong victory in state elections Sunday, while the anti-migrant, anti-Islam and eurosceptic AfD, riven by infighting, has badly slipped in the polls.

The head of Germany’s liberal FDP party, Christian Lindner, said “after 2016 was the year when populists, over-simplifiers and extremists celebrated success, 2017 is the year of the moderate forces”.

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– ‘Economics of envy’ –

Joseph Downing, researcher at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, said that “when Macron declared he was going to run as a pro-globalisation, pro-EU candidate … people thought he was insane, and he has won.”

“It will send a signal across Europe that populists are not as strong as they seem and that actually there’s a lot of support still for the European project and economic globalisation to some extent.”

Many, however, warned it was too early to claim victory for centrist politics.

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Martin Quencez of think-tank the German Marshall Fund of the United States argued that in France “the structural issues behind the populist votes are yet to be tackled”.

“One third of the voters supported the nationalist, anti-EU and anti-globalisation candidacy of Marine Le Pen, and this will remain the main political opposition to the new president.”

UBS bank economist Paul Donovan wrote that “the recent run of election results may tempt investors to think that anti-establishment politics is over. This would be unwise.”

He warned that income inequality and other “fundamental causes of anti-establishment politics” continue to “encourage scapegoat economics –- a desire to blame an external group for economic problems”.

Similarly, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned that now Macron must be allowed to succeed because “if he fails, then Madame Le Pen will be president in five years’ time”.

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