Macron warns against ‘sleepwalking’ into extremism

Leading liberal democrats discuss the need to ‘counterattack’ global rise of populism

"The world is fracturing . . . Europe is leaning almost everywhere towards the extremes and towards nationalism. Those who don't see what is happening everywhere around us are implicitly deciding to be the sleepwalkers of today's world," French president Emmanuel Macron warned darkly in a recent television address.

Macron's defeat of the extreme right-wing leader Marine Le Pen granted France a reprieve in its flirtation with nationalist populism. But Le Pen's young niece Marion Maréchal is waiting in the wings, and nationalist parties are growing in most EU countries, as well as in Asia and the Americas.

Several dozen people from what populists would label “the elite” borrowed the EU Commission’s office in Paris on Monday night to debate the question “Can democracy become illiberal?” The gathering showed the level of concern, and that civil society is not standing by helplessly while populism takes over.

The lawyer and essayist Laurent Cohen-Tanugi, author of Resistances: Democracy Tested, was the guest of honour at the "Europartenaires" meeting.


The term “illiberal democracy” was popularised by the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in 2014, Cohen-Tanugi said. He defined liberal democracy as “a philosophy of government that originated in the US and Britain, and which protects individual freedoms, creates checks and balances to limit the abuse of power and advocates the rule of law”. Liberal democracy had prevailed since the second World War, and was intended to prevent the rise through democratic means of another monster like Hitler.

“Illiberal democracy claims power to change everything, to wipe the slate clean, to impose majority rule without limits,” Cohen-Tanugi said. “It is the antithesis of both American democracy and the EU system, which work through consensus. Illiberal democracy is simply autocracy and authoritariansim. I believe there is no such thing as democracy other than liberal in our day.”

High point in history

Cohen-Tanugi cited the Harvard academic Yascha Mounk. In The People vs Democracy, Mounk writes that liberal democracy may have been a high point in history whose time has ended. Cohen-Tanugi wants to believe that liberal democracy can still triumph. But to do so it must "counterattack", by helping citizens adapt to the technological revolution, by stopping "the digital war on liberal democracy" waged by populists and authoritarian foreign regimes. And politicians "must stop following opinion instead of leading it", he says.

Italy is one of the six founding members of Europe, so its defection to the populist camp last March has been particularly alarming. Matteo Salvini is deputy prime minister and interior minister, and he calls the shots. In Lodi, northern Italy, a mayor who belongs to Salvini's far-right League ordered that children of foreign families be separated in the school canteen.

It's a global phenomenon . . . the political class have been caught short in all democracies

In Bari, a port town where large numbers of migrants arrive, a gang of youths spray-painted an African child white so he would be the “right” colour. Salvini, who frequently quotes Mussolini, has ordered that migrants be expelled from a Calabrian village where they were invited to settle.

The rise of populist nationalism "surpasses the European Union", Jean-Dominique Giuliani, chairman of the Robert Schuman Foundation, told me in a separate interview. Jair Bolsonaro, the far right-wing Brazilian presidential candidate, is known for racist, misogynist and homophobic discourse, and for close relations with big business. Bolsonaro is almost certain to become president of Brazil next Sunday.

‘Caught short’

Nationalism is also on the rise in India, Japan and elsewhere in Asia, Giuliani notes. “It’s a global phenomenon . . . the political class have been caught short in all democracies. All traditional parties are being violently attacked for not foreseeing the rise of inequality, especially in the US, unemployment in France, the anxiety fostered by migration in Europe.”

The problem is more serious in Europe, Giuliani says, “because Europe is unfinished. Its members are not unified. When they turn inward . . . it’s a regression of democracy that can only be fought by providing a vision of how to develop our societies and economies, a future with hope.”

Mass immigration fuelled the rise of populism in Europe. Populists would have you believe EU politicians have done nothing since the crisis peaked in 2015.

Not true, says Giuliani. "We've reduced immigration by 90 per cent. And we've done it thanks to the EU, not through national governments. There were 1.5 million migrants in 2015. This year there will be between 200,000 and 300,000, maximum. We have made agreements with Turkey and the Maghreb. It's the EU that pays the UNHCR for migrants to stay in camps in Turkey or Lebanon. Half the population are in camps."