He's put the Socialists back in the race.

Don't Discount a Center-Left Comeback in Europe

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The right-wing, nationalist resurgence in Europe is now a cliche. It is, however, not inconceivable that a successful backlash is developing in some countries before the nationalists had a chance to take over. 

It's too early to draw any conclusions, but in the European Union's two biggest economies -- Germany and France (the U.K. should no longer count) -- recent events show that voters can be receptive to more center-left messages if its representatives follow some simple rules and push their message energetically enough. 

Emmanuel Macron, a former minister in a socialist government under President Francois Hollande, is now the front-runner or tied for leadership among the four candidates who hail from the mainstream of French politics. Though Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right national front, is technically the most popular candidate, polls give a 20 to 30 point lead to whomever gets into the second round of the election with Le Pen. Polls, of course, have often been wrong in recent years, but closing a gap of this size in just three months is far more difficult than what Donald Trump pulled off in the U.S.

The emergence of Martin Schultz as the German Social Democratic Party's candidate for the chancellor's job has re-energized the SPD, which was growing accustomed to playing second fiddle in the governing coalition led by Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. Two of the most recent polls show a bump in the Social Democrats' popularity from around 22 percent to 26 percent -- still not enough to beat the CDU, with 32 percent to 35 percent support, but uncomfortably close. If Schulz can build on this, the SPD might even be able to build a coalition with more extreme leftists and Greens, denying Merkel a fourth term as chancellor. But even if that chance proves elusive, the SPD is likely to get more influence in the next grand coalition with Merkel's party.

Both have strong center-left credentials. The French candidate isn't the ruling Socialist Party's official nominee -- that's Benoit Hamon, a far more radical leftist -- but he has served in the government, and despite offering a pro-business program that proposes tax cuts, a more flexible labor market and some expansion of unemployment benefits -- for example, to those working temporary or part-time jobs. The New York Times once described him as the "face of France's new socialism." As for Schulz, he's made it clear that he will campaign on social promises, such as higher wages: He claims German workers deserve them after years of incomes lagging economic growth.

Both Schulz and Macron clearly understand two things: To win in 2017, one needs some outsider flair, and one has to be a proactive, indefatigable campaigner.

Being part of the establishment carries clear risks. It's not just that people everywhere are dissatisfied with politics as usual: An "establishment" history can easily form the basis of a character assassination. Hillary Clinton found that out last year. Fillon is discovering it today as he loses popularity because of revelations that he's paid out around $1 million to family members who supposedly  worked for him while he was a legislator. He's already lost his leadership in the race, and he may drop even further. As for Merkel and the Social Democrats with top jobs in her government, their personal integrity isn't in question but they are weighed down by years of debatable compromises, including some uncomfortable seesawing on immigration policy.

So former investment banker Macron plays up his private sector background and Schulz his lack of involvement in the current grand coalition while he served in the European Parliament in Brussels. Both have taken their messages directly to the people in a style that appears more American than European. Macron likes campaign rallies that attract an unusually large number of voters. Schulz started off his candidacy with a trip to Germany's industrial heartland, the Ruhr area, and will go on to tour the nation.

None of this means, of course, that both or even one of them will be successful. But their activity and their apparent appeal to voters shows that Western Europe's center-left (or reforming centrists, as one might call Macron) are far from finished as a formidable political force. They have competent leaders with a healthy fighting spirit.

All of this has forced liberal centrists such as Merkel, Fillon and Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Netherlands, where an election will be held on March 15, to shift right to take some votes from the nationalist populists, whom they have seen as the biggest threat. Fillon has a tough stance on refugees, Merkel has backed a ban on full-face coverings for Muslim women, Rutte has called on immigrants who don't want to accept the Dutch culture to get out. Because the line between the center-right electorate and that of the nationalist populists has become blurred, nods to the far right are probably justified as a tactic. But the center-left parties are free from the need for such compromise. That gives them an opportunity to appear more genuine -- an important catchword from the 2016 U.S. campaign.

Left-of-center forces showed their ability to win in last year's Austrian presidential election. If they do respectably in France and Germany, a socialist-leaning, and probably more united, Europe will square off against a nationalist-populist U.S. -- perhaps a more unexpected 2017 outcome than a series of nationalist victories, which is still very much possible.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net