Macron, Salvini Represent Opposite Sides in Europe’s Culture War

The Frenchman is the hope of cosmopolitan Europe. The Italian has emerged as its leading nationalist.

Emmanuel Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron makes a speech in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, April 17 (European Parliament/Mathieu Cugnot)

Politico has a good story about how France’s Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Matteo Salvini represent opposite sides in what I — per Andrew Sullivan — call .

Macron is a former investment banker who styles himself as a liberal champion of the European Union. Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party, has emerged as Europe’s leading nationalist — one who has pledged to bring the European project to a crashing halt.

Both are building transnational coalitions to contest the 2019 European Parliament elections.


Macron is the hope of “blue” Europe: cosmopolitan, college-educated, mostly urban voters. His 2017 election victory against Marine Le Pen — Salvini’s French ally — was hailed as a vindication of liberalism and European integration.

Salvini, whose party is now the largest on the Italian right, represents the inward-looking Europe of the small towns and countryside. This “red” Europe is wary of immigration and sympathetic to autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

New axis

The blue-red divide is supplanting the left-right axis in European politics.

Macronist parties, like the Citizens in Spain, draw support from the center-left as well as center-right.

The most successful of Salvini’s allies — Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party in Poland — have both absorbed the traditional center-right and converted former social democratic voters to their cause.

Long-running struggle

Michael Cotey Morgan has argued in The American Interest that this conflict — between Europhiles and Euroskeptics, between the political mainstream and populists — isn’t new but rather the latest chapter in the continent’s long-running struggle between Enlightenment universalism and Romantic nationalism:

The European Union’s proponents may believe that they — and the partisans of the Enlightenment — won this fight long ago. Yet the conflict between [Immanuel] Kant and [Johann Gottlieb] Fichte, [Adam] Smith and [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau continues to rage.

We’re debating different policies, but the underlying tension — between liberty and community, between opportunity and equality, between city and country — hasn’t changed.