The Slatest

Boring European Conservatives Are the Last Hope for Liberal Democracy

Then–French Prime Minister François Fillon and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 3, 2011, in Hanover, Germany.

Patrick Lux/AFP/Getty Images

An authoritarian bully is about to move into the White House, appointing a white nationalist as his adviser. A Hindu nationalist party rules India. Britain seems to be drifting aimlessly post-Brexit.  Brazilian protesters are storming Parliament to demand a military coup. More and more countries in Eastern Europe are falling into the political orbit of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. South Korea’s political system is in a full-blown meltdown and Japan’s leaders are alarmingly nostalgic for their wartime past. It’s fair to say we’re in a crisis moment for the postwar global order and potentially liberal democracy itself.

All this has dramatically raised the stakes for next year’s major elections in two of the world’s largest and most influential democracies: France and Germany. If we’re going to transcend these dark times, it’s looking like there won’t be inspiring figures in the mold of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Vaclav Havel to pull us through. Uninspiring European conservatives, we’re counting on you.

France’s center-right Republican Party held the first round of its presidential primary on Sunday. The two winners—François Fillon followed by Alain Juppé, both former prime ministers—will face each other in a runoff next week. The two knocked out former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who came in third. Given the current anti-establishment mood, voters were probably wise to reject a candidate who already served as president and may still have to go to trial for illegal fundraising.

Current front-runner Fillon, who wants to cut taxes and spending, limit immigration, and opposes gay marriage, is definitely not the candidate of leftists’ dreams, but they’re likely to have to suck it up and vote for him. The current president, Socialist François Hollande, will probably run for re-election, but he’s the most unpopular leader in French history. His former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, has formed his own party to challenge him, further splitting the socialist vote.

So the most likely scenario now is that the winner of the Conservative primary will face Marine Le Pen—she of the far-right, anti-immigrant, Trump-celebrating National Front—in a runoff election on May 7.* Polls suggest that, as has happened in the past, the Conservatives will get enough grudging support from the left to box out the Front, but, given what just happened in the U.S. and trends around the world, that shouldn’t make anyone too comfortable.

Also on Sunday, German Chancellor and the new de facto “leader of the free world” Angela Merkel announced that she will be running for her fourth term, which would make her tied with Helmut Kohl as Germany’s longest-serving postwar leader. Polls suggest Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union would win if the election were held today, but her popularity has been down over public concerns about her comparatively open policy to accepting refugees. The right-wing Alternative for Germany party, which favors a burqa ban, sped up deportations, and restrictions on asylum seekers, came in ahead of Merkel’s CDU in regional elections in her home constituency of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in September.

The chancellor’s stolid, uncharismatic, and, in the rest of Europe, frequently unpopular leadership of Europe’s largest economy has been one of the few political constants at a time when Europe, and the rest of the world, have been plunged into uncertainty. After January, this conservative will arguably be the most powerful person left in the world committed to small-l liberal values.

Merkel told her party that she was running to “fight for our values and our way of life,” which is the sort of thing politicians always say but feels a bit more literal this time around.

*Correction, Nov. 21, 2016: This post originally misspelled Marine Le Pen’s first name.