MAY 16 — The victory of Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 French presidential elections signals the emergence of ambivalent global political trends: The disintegration of the left-right political divide, deemed obsolete for the contemporary reality, and the triumph of neo-liberalism, a harbinger of increasing class disparities, youth unemployment and identity-related violence.
These emergent global trends also have an impact on Asia where economic migration and neo-liberal policies lead to restructured economies and emerging identities.
The decisive victory of Macron in the French presidential elections against Marine Le Pen was hailed as a triumph for values of liberalism, democracy and freedom.
Macron emerged on the political scene only four years ago when he was appointed Minister of Economy. After a three-year stint in the ministry where he supposedly designed some of former president Francois Hollande’s most unpopular policies such as the labour law reforms, Macron quit the governing French Socialist party to form En Marche!, an independent political movement.
Macron considers the left-right divide obsolete for contemporary political realities and vowed to adopt policies across the spectrum. En Marche! promised to make the French economy more dynamic, and create a more liberal and tolerant society.
Macron’s victory highlights that the French electorate considers both left- and right-wing ideologies inadequate to tackle contemporary economic and political problems. Since 2002, the Socialist Party, like the other left-wing French parties, was divided by squabbles and lack of consensus.
Inconsistencies between social welfare discourse and practice, such as anti-austerity measures and changes to labour law, led to widespread dissatisfaction among the socialist constituency.
Pre-election polls showed this was the main reason the Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, and the Left Party candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, lost in the first round.
The right-wing Republican candidate, Francois Fillon, initially the favourite to win, fell out of the race following a major corruption scandal. Informed by greater social awareness, the French electorate was also unhappy about his determination to defend France’s Christian values.
Fillon’s opposition to abortion and same-sex marriages appeared to contradict France’s cosmopolitan values. Unlike anachronistic left- and right-wing rhetoric, Macron and Le Pen adopted new blended political vocabularies to distance themselves from traditional politics.
The anachronism of the left-right ideological divide in France mirrors political developments in the United States and United Kingdom.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign avoided stereotypical Republican discourses in favour of problem-oriented perspectives. In the UK, the Labour Party’s popularity declined sharply due to its incapacity to address the British electorate’s economic concerns and perceived threats to values and identity.
These trends highlight that exclusive left- and right-wing discourses are rejected by constituencies because they fail to concomitantly address class and identity matters in societies.
Socio-political complexity caused by global economic interaction, migration and environmental concerns, among others, compelled left- and right-wing parties to adopt policies in strict contradiction to their manifestos. As such, people do not acknowledge their legitimacy any more and are on lookout for better alternatives.
Emerging social neo-liberal complexities
Yet, Macron’s victory has a dark side: The disintegration of the left- and right-wing parties also signals the global triumph of neo-liberalism. His ultra-liberalist political projects and his willingness to further deregulate the French market and privatise public services led Le Pen to portray him as the puppet of financial markets, European Union interests and the “globalised, cosmopolitan elite”.
Her statements are not far-fetched. In the past 15 years, neo-liberal policies in France have contributed to a significant decrease in living standards and a sharp increase in unemployment.
Youth unemployment is a great concern across the country, a phenomenon tightly linked to youth Islamist radicalisation and terrorism. In this context, left-wingers in France went to the extent of denouncing Macron’s neo-liberal stance as fostering fascism.
These trends are visible worldwide. Neo-liberalism emerged in the late 1970s as an ideology which praised competition, defined citizens as consumers and advocated for unfettered markets. Since the 1990s, the increase in global GDP (271 per cent) has been directly proportional to the increase in global poverty, wage stagnation in the developed world and growing inequality between countries around the world.
The cocktail of globalisation, deregulation and technology turned out to be lethal for certain labour skills and some national economies. Fast-paced human interactions and global migration altered demographics around the world and blurred the lines of traditional identities.
The past few decades witnessed a mushrooming of supra- and sub-national movements which envision to restructure contemporary political establishments along ethnic, religious or cosmopolitan lines.
Perhaps the most telling example is the Islamic State, the terror group which has radicalised youths around the world with its revolutionary and reality-altering paradigms.
Currently, these same global trends are reshaping Asia’s social, political and economic structures and creating new social cleavages. Singapore has experienced high numbers of incoming skilled workers and white collar expatriates. As a result, new identities emerged at the intersection of ethnicity, religion and class.
The pro-IS radicalisation of the Bangladeshi workers in last year highlights how the link between low economic status and emerging identities can be dangerous. Indonesian female domestic workers in Singapore could share a similar trajectory. A report released by the Ministry of Home Affairs last December mentioned five Indonesian maids radicalised through online sources during their stay in Singapore.
In Indonesia, the November 2016 protests against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — popularly known as Ahok — underscore contemporary neo-liberal paradigms. A united, revolutionary Islamist front — neither left, nor right — emerged primarily against the political and financial domination of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.
The decision to sentence Ahok to two years in prison on blasphemy charges highlights the emerging leverage of Islamist outfits in the country.
In contrast to Indonesia, Malaysia sought to reconcile Islam and neoliberalism.
The country is the world’s pioneer in Islamic finance, boasting more than 60 per cent of the sukuk (Islamic bond) market estimated at US$164 billion (RM707.66 billion).
This puts Islamist parties such as Umno and PAS in a position of greater legitimacy which could lead to increased Islamic conservatism.
While offering great potential for higher life standards in the region, neo-liberalism and emerging identities, if left unchecked, can negatively impact current socio-political structures.
* Aida Arosoaie is a senior analyst at the Malaysia Programme of S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.