Victory has proved no easier for the populists, where they have found it. The far-left Greek party Syriza rode a narrative of rejection of creditor-imposed austerity to political victory in 2012. But governing has tested that narrative. As Stathis Kalyvas writes, Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras’s decision to double down on his rejection of creditors’ terms in 2015, when he knew he would have to accept them anyway, cost his country billions. Tspiras has managed to hang on to power, but his chaotic management has allowed an opening for an energetic new challenger, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to gain strength, and he and his traditional New Democracy party are well-positioned to take over the next time Tspiras stumbles.
A theme connecting both Syriza and Macron is the need for what the historian Timothy Garton Ash calls a simplistic, emotional narrative. That’s the only way to cut through the noise in an era of fragmented media. But they show its limits as well. The message that united two-thirds of French voters behind Macron was to oppose the National Front, a narrative so powerful that the sitting French ambassador to Washington got on the radio to compare a Le Pen victory to Vichy-era collaborationism. But Macron needs a new message for legislative elections, and the call for European integration isn’t nearly as uniting. As Le Pen likes to remind anyone who will listen, France voted down the proposed EU constitution in 2005.
The leader who has best embraced this challenge is Theresa May in Britain. She is no one’s definition of a populist, but she has embraced the rabble-rousers’ love of clear and emotive rhetoric. She has accused the EU of meddling in her election, cleverly placing her on the outside of the club she has chosen to leave. Macron’s victory, she says, requires a strong mandate for her in response. “Every vote for me and my team will strengthen my hand in those Brexit negotiations.” Never mind that a Le Pen victory would have been much worse for May, by setting the European building on fire while May tries to calmly head toward the exit.