Chennai: There were sighs of relief throughout the European Union after President Emmanuel Macron beat back a serious challenge in France from the populist far-right champion Marine Le Pen. Then another populist went down, in Slovenia, where the country’s three-time prime minister, Janez Jansa, lost to a loose coalition of centrist rivals in parliamentary elections on Sunday.
Those two defeats were widely seen as a reprieve for the European Union and its fundamental principles, including judicial independence, shared sovereignty and the supremacy of European law. That is because they dealt a blow to the ambitions and worldview of Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, who avidly supported both Le Pen and Jansa in an effort to create a coalition of more nationalist, religious and anti-immigration politics that could undermine the authority of the European Union itself.
“Europe can breathe,” said Jean-Dominique Giuliani, chairman of the Robert Schuman Foundation, a pro-European research center.
After his own electoral victory earlier this month, Orban declared: “The whole world has seen tonight in Budapest that Christian democratic politics, conservative civic politics and patriotic politics have won. We are telling Europe that this is not the past: This is the future. This will be our common European future.” Not yet, it seems.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Orban, who has been close to both former President Donald J. Trump and Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s president, is more isolated in Europe than in many years. He has been a model for the Polish government of the Law and Justice party, which has also challenged what it considers the liberal politics and the overbearing bureaucratic and judicial influence of Brussels. But Law and Justice is deeply anti-Putin, a mood sharpened by the war.
“The international environment for Orban has never been so dire,” said Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based research institution. Orban found support from Trump, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and from the Italian populist leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. But they are all gone, as Jansa is expected to be, and now Orban “has fewer friends in the world,” Kreko said.
Le Pen’s party was given a 10.7 million euro loan in March to help fund her campaign from Hungary’s MKB bank, whose major shareholders are considered close to Orban. And Hungarian media and social media openly supported both Le Pen and Jansa. Le Pen’s strong showing was a reminder that populism — on both the right and the left — remains a vibrant force in a Europe, with high voter dissatisfaction over rising inflation, soaring energy prices, slow growth, immigration and the bureaucracy emanating from E.U. headquarters in Brussels.
But now Macron, as the first French president to be re-elected in 20 years, has new authority to press his ideas for more European responsibility and collective defense.
After the retirement late last year of Angela Merkel, the former chancellor of Germany, Macron will inevitably be seen as the de facto leader of the European Union, with a stronger voice and standing to push issues he cares about. Those include a more robust European pillar in defense and security, economic reform and fighting climate change. In his second term, Macron “will double down” on the ideas for Europe that he presented in his speech to the Sorbonne in 2017, “especially the idea of European sovereignty,” said Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund.