January 18, 2018


NEW YORK — Emmanuel Macron is today the most admired world leader among liberals, centrists and cosmopolitans around the globe. He has managed to win the French presidency, enact reforms and stay relatively popular — all while speaking positively about the free market, the European Union, globalization and trade. He has done all this in the face of a tide of populism that is still surging. What’s his secret? One key area to watch him on is immigration.

On Tuesday, Macron announced yet again that his government would be tougher on immigration, expediting asylum claims and then actually deporting those whose applications were rejected. (In 2016, France deported less than 20 percent of those denied asylum.) He insisted that he would never permit another “Jungle” to appear on his watch, referring to the enormous makeshift refugee camp that was cleared in 2016. Macron is being criticized from the left and congratulated by his former opponent in the presidential election, the populist right-wing leader Marine Le Pen.

Macron has been an extraordinarily shrewd politician, and has a chance to be one of the great presidents of France’s Fifth Republic. He understands something about the popular mood, and not just within his nation’s borders. In Germany, Angela Merkel has seen her once sky-high public support crater over one central issue — her decision in 2015 to allow in a million refugees, many from Syria. In the recent German elections, in which Merkel’s party lost ground and the right-wing AfD won enough votes to enter the Parliament for the first time, exit polling showed that 90 percent of voters wanted those rejected for asylum to be deported faster, and 71 percent wanted to cap the overall number of refugees.

The central issue feeding populism around the globe is immigration. That’s why you still see right-wing populism in such countries as Germany, Holland and Sweden, where economic growth is strong, manufacturing is vibrant, and inequality has not risen dramatically. Donald Trump beat 16 talented Republican candidates because he outflanked them all on one issue — immigration. “The thing [my base] want[s] more than anything is the wall,” Trump explained to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Democrats continue to move left on economics, believing that this will make them more credible populists. But polling shows that the public is already with them on economic issues. Where they differ — and especially with white working-class voters — is on immigration. And yet, the party is now more extreme on the topic than it has ever been.

Positions that dozens of Democratic senators took on immigration 10 years ago are now rejected by almost every party leader. Most back then, for example, would have agreed that America’s current mix of immigration skews too heavily toward family unification and needs to attract more immigrants with skills. Now, none will speak on the issue. The party today embraces “sanctuary cities,” suggesting that local authorities should ignore federal laws or even defy federal authorities who try to enforce the law of the land. Imagine if Republican mayors did the same with regard to laws they don’t like on guns or abortions.

It is difficult to be moderate on any topic these days, most of all immigration. Trump discusses the issue in ways that seem, to me, racist. Factions of the Republican Party have become ugly and mean-spirited in tone and temper, demeaning immigrants and encouraging nativism and bigotry. To compromise with these kinds of attitudes seems distasteful, even immoral.

And yet, the issue is one that should allow for some sensible middle ground. The late Edward Kennedy was one of the most liberal senators in the country. Sen. John McCain is a staunch conservative. And yet they were able to agree on a set of compromises in the mid-2000s that would have largely resolved America’s immigration deadlock and the rage surrounding it. Canada used to have strong nativist forces within it. But ever since its immigration system moved to a skills-based one — coupled with strong efforts at celebrating diversity, multiculturalism and assimilation — it has had few such voices. And this despite the fact that Canada now has a substantially higher percentage of foreign-born residents than the United States.

The scale and speed of immigration over the last few decades is a real issue. Just since 1990, the share of foreign-born people in America has gone from 9 percent to 15 percent. It has nearly doubled in Germany and the Netherlands and nearly tripled in Denmark. Most of the new immigrants do come from cultures that are more distant and different. Societies can only take so much change in a generation. If mainstream politicians do not recognize these realities and insist that those who speak of them are racists, they will only push the public in its desperation to embrace the real racists — of which there are many.

Fareed Zakaria’s email address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.