Final hour in France, populism explained, South Korea’s election

This week, decision time in France, populism is explained with popcorn, and South Korea’s election is previewed.

[Signal brought to you by Alex Kliment this week, while Matt Peterson is out. Alex does a very good clown impression, just ask him on Twitter.]

Here we go.

The Noise This Week

He says she’s a dangerous extremist. She says he’s a submissive elitist traitor. French voters will face nothing if not a clear choice in this Sunday’s second round of a presidential election that will determine not only the future of France, but potentially of the European Union itself. Most pundits and investors are betting that the upstart, pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron will defeat the far-right Euroskeptic firebrand Marine Le Pen, as polls show him with a comfortable 20-point lead. We’ll wait here while you ask supporters of Hillary Clinton or the Atlanta Falcons to redefine “comfortable” for you.

One of the keys for Le Pen will be how well her message of economic and cultural protectionism resonates beyond her Front National party’s traditional base of support in the south. If she can woo sizable numbers of traditionally left-wing voters in France’s industrial north, she’ll have a shot. If they choose to abstain rather than give their votes to Macron — a former banker whom Le Pen has painted, with some help from the man himself, as the epitome of the detached, effete elite — she’ll lose.

If Macron does win, you’ll hear an audible sigh of relief on Monday morning from much of the European political and business establishment. The EU’s third largest economy will not, in the end, be in danger of leaving the Union any time soon. And coming just a month and a half after the far right fared poorly in the Dutch election, it will appear that the threat of so-called “populism” is receding.

But don’t get carried away.

First, governing a country suffering anemic growth, deep social polarization, and acute security fears would be difficult under any circumstances, but Macron will take that gig with a weak mandate and an untested party — his En Marche movement is barely a year old. Le Pen meanwhile will just have come within a few million votes of taking the presidency — any missteps by Macron will be fodder for a Front National that is, in historical perspective, gaining momentum rather than losing it. As ever, governing will be hard but capitalizing on mistakes will be easier.

Second, and more broadly, the underlying problems of economic malaise, income inequality, political polarization, and terrorist threats will remain with us after the polls close — not only in France, but across Europe and the United States. It is useful to think of populism less as a coherent political ideology than as a style of politics that channels popular frustration with detached elites who seem to benefit disproportionately from the status quo. Those grievances — and the challenge of addressing them without undercutting the fundamental values of modern liberal democracies — will continue to shape our politics well beyond the current electoral cycle.

So keep listening — even if Macron wins, Monday won’t be so different.

Self Promotion Interlude: The Eurasia Group Foundation puts the POP in Populism.

Moon on the Rise: What to expect from South Korea’s election next week, by EG’s Scott Seaman.

South Koreans go to the polls on 9 May to vote for a new leader following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye — a first in the country’s history. She has been indicted on corruption charges stemming from accusations that she and a longtime friend and confidante conspired to solicit millions of dollars in bribes and could face up to life in prison if convicted.
 
The collapse of political forces on the right that accompanied Park’s fall from power provided a huge boost to the popularity of the left-of-center Democratic Party of Korea and its nominee for president, Moon Jae-in. Barring an unexpected scandal or some other unforeseen and serious calamity, Moon appears well placed to cruise to victory next week.
 
Leading the Pack (and then some)

Recent surveys show Moon firmly in the pole position after a string of lackluster debate performances by his primary rival, Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People’s Party. Ahn polled neck-and-neck with Moon at the beginning of April, but the gap between the two has widened since then to 20 points or more in many recent surveys.
 
Remaining Threats
There’s still a small risk that a large anti-Moon coalition forms between the center and the right late in the campaign behind a single candidate and turns the tide against him. But neither of the two principal candidates on the right will be able to catch up with Moon over the next several days even if they were to join forces. Ahn appears to be floundering, with his former supporters now moving behind Moon or Hong Joon-pyo, the candidate of the conservative Liberty Korea Party.
 
What a Moon Administration Will Look Like
A government under Moon would pursue more, and more independent, political and economic engagement with Pyongyang. Moon would seek improved relations with China and has pledged to review the Park government’s decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system. Moon is also committed to increasing fiscal spending, especially on social safety net programs and job creation, and advancing reforms to rein in the economic and political power of the chaebols — South Korea’s large, family-controlled business conglomerates.
 
The takeaway:
The election of a progressive South Korean president with ideas for a fresh approach to address the North Korea threat will fuel tensions with the US under President Donald Trump, but the bilateral security alliance will remain strong.

— Scott Seaman, Director Asia

Your Weekly Bremmer

Hard Numbers

15 minimum wage increases have occurred in Venezuela since the beginning of President Maduro’s term in 2013, with the most recent coming this week. With inflation of 720 percent, that’s not quite going to cut it.

40 percent of North Koreans are now employed in the private sector, testing the boundaries of the government’s control of the economy and society.

4 percent of Namibia’s population consists of Chinese nationals, according to a report from the country’s home-affairs ministry. Chairman Mao Zedong high school can be found in the capital Windhoek.

3,974 public officials were fired in Turkey this week and the government imposed a ban on TV dating shows. The Bachelor of Ankara had so much potential.

Words of Wisdom

“Everyone already thought Medvedev was pathetic and pointless, but it turns out he’s pathetic, pointless and a billionaire.”

— Russian political figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny on why thousands of Russians have taken to the streets in protest over the past few weeks.

[Correction: An earlier edition of Signal misstated the timing of chemical attacks by the Syrian government. Three additional chemical attacks occurred prior to that on April 4, 2017 which prompted a US military response, not after]

Signal is written by Alex Kliment (@SaoSasha) with editorial support from Gabe Lipton (@gflipton). Don’t like what you read? Feel free to yell at us on Twitter or just reply to this email.