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In the first-rate Stendhal novel that we call Emmanuel Macron’s life, the protagonist grows bolder and bolder as he rises through France. He marries who he likes, thanks. He joins Rothschild even as a banking crash turns public opinion against financiers. He sets up a party, gives it his own initials and wins the biggest directly elected office in Europe after jilting his mentor.

His latest decision — to give the hard right an early shot at power — will be filed alongside those headstrong acts. It is no such thing. It is a work of cool logic.

The last best hope against populism in Europe is to expose it to government. The pressure of office might force anti-establishment parties to moderate, as Giorgia Meloni has done somewhat in Italy. Or it might reveal their incompetence and turpitude, as happened to Boris Johnson in Britain. Sometimes, of course, it will do neither: power will neither tame nor shame. (See Viktor Orbán.) But even then, these parties should at least become subject to the pendulum of politics. Time spent in government is time spent alienating voters with tangible decisions.

Right now, in much of Europe, populists have a goldilocks level of success: enough to foul the atmosphere, to spread the idea that simple answers to big problems exist if governments would but enact them, but not enough to have to prove this in office. The establishment has a record, and all records are flawed. Its enemies get to travel lighter. The contest between the two sides is, in Pentagon argot, asymmetric.

Note how many of the hard right’s relative underperformers in the European parliament elections are incumbents at home (Orbán’s Fidesz) or proppers-up of governments (the Sweden Democrats). This is the gravitational force that drags mainstream politicians down. Government brings round-the-clock attention, not just the curated broadcast rounds at which Nigel Farage excels. Above all, it brings the burden of making decisions that cost voters money.

I could cite tax rises here, to fund lavish promises. Or higher interest rates from overborrowing. But few things would harm the populist cause more than having to manage immigration. Their plausible-sounding alternative to foreign labour in low-wage sectors — pay domestic workers more — would be tested against the public’s price-sensitivity. Even if voters don’t balk at higher social care or retail costs, the trade-off would become apparent at last. Never having to be tested, populist ideas have a spurious credibility. Only a spell in government would change that.

What can be said against all this? “Donald Trump”, perhaps. High office didn’t temper the 45th US president, did show voters his worst, and still he is favourite to be the 47th. All true. But Europe, for now, is different. Most of its democracies aren’t quite as divided or tribal as the US, where, eventually, the question of what day of the week it is will generate a 50-50 polling result. Gross misgovernment would still discredit a leader in most of the continent. Consider the irrelevance of Johnson in the UK election, even as a loudmouth on the sidelines.

A better argument is that, once in office, populists might pervert the system to remain there, or do something so harmful as to outweigh the benefit of rendering them unelectable thereafter. (Such as leaving the world’s biggest single market.) Hence the cordon sanitaire of the German mainstream against the hard right.

It is an argument to be reckoned with. In an ideal world, getting close to power would be enough for populists to lose voters. Macron wants France to contemplate a Rassemblement National prime minister this summer, and demur. But he wouldn’t have taken the decision to hold an election if he saw nothing constructive at all in an RN win. At some point, voters have to live with the consequences of their stated desires.

A notion dear to the west is that progress is made, and the truth arrived at, through argument. (Socrates has a lot to answer for.) This underestimates the role of practical demonstration. The west didn’t experience a human lifetime of moderate politics after 1945 because it was talked into it. What counted was the folk memory, now almost extinct, of what happened when nations last voted for parties that defined themselves against the system.

There might be no safe way of giving voters a controlled dose. But the status quo, in which populists are on television, on stage, but not on the hook for much, isn’t tenable. Macron’s election will be framed as another outrageous gamble from an almost novelistic homme du destin. It might in fact be the most prudent thing he could have done.

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