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Paul Magnette set himself up as the European left's last best hope well before he sent global elites into a tizzy by withholding tiny Wallonia's signature on an arcane Canada-Europe free-trade deal.

When the head of French-speaking Wallonia's regional government and former academic published his latest book last year, a collection of columns defiantly titled The Left Never Dies, he warned that Europe's social democrats were losing the plot – and their electoral base – as they embraced the same free-market policies as their political foes on the right.

"We can't lie to ourselves: The left is profoundly in crisis in Europe, with the exception of the little Gaulish village that is francophone Belgium," he claimed, telling his comrades across the continent not to lose sight of the left's "North Star" of equality.

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Mr. Magnette is a fierce critic of the manner in which French President François Hollande and his Prime Minister Manuel Valls – both staunch defenders of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the European Union and Canada – have pushed through pro-business reforms despite widespread protests. Praising Nordic-style consensus-building, the Belgian Socialist has espoused a "third way" for the European left between Mr. Hollande's capitulation to the market and the insurgent "protesting left" that seeks to blow up the existing order.

Although Mr. Magnette knew full well that his government's 11th-hour rejection of the trade agreement would throw Europe into yet another existential crisis, he remains a pragmatist. His ultimate aim is to save the EU by re-establishing its legitimacy among voters across the continent who have come to see the eurocrats in Brussels as puppets of an elites-driven corporate agenda.

In most of Europe, this popular anger toward the EU has benefited parties on the far right, draining their rivals on the centre-left of much of their traditional electoral base. Mr. Hollande's Socialist Party has seen its support sink to record lows as the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen takes over as the first choice of working-class French voters. Voters in regions hard hit by deindustrialization who not long ago voted solidly Socialist have increasingly taken to the FN's anti-immigration, anti-EU message.

In Wallonia's rust belt, it's been the Workers' Party of Belgium, a radical Marxist formation, that's eaten into Socialist support with each new factory closing. Hence, local politics figured as much as Mr. Magnette's broader agenda in his move to withhold support for CETA, as did pressure from his Christian Democratic coalition partners whose electoral base includes anti-CETA farmers.

It would be a mistake, however, to view Wallonia's refusal to be cowed into approving the accord solely or even primarily through the lens of local politics. Mr. Magnette aims to jolt Europe's mainstream left into realizing the risk it runs by failing to articulate an agenda that gives those thus far left behind by globalization a reason to buy into it. If it takes provoking a crisis, so be it. Overnight, it has made him a hero across the continent, and not just on the left.

CETA is merely collateral damage amid the wave of anti-globalization sentiment rushing over the West. Better that its demise (at least in its current form) should come at the hands of a politician who wants to save the EU than at those of one, such as Ms. Le Pen, who wants to destroy it. The odds of a Brexit may be longer now that CETA's difficult passage shows how hard it will be for Britain to get a new deal with the EU, although Mr. Magnette's move could also fuel the anti-globalization mood should his warnings go unheeded.

Trade liberalization is not the only cause of worker dislocation. More working-class jobs are threatened by automation than open borders. But unless the governing elites, regardless of political stripe, do more than just talk about "inclusive growth," the West could be headed for a dark period of beggar-thy-neighbour mercantilism, proving that history has taught us nothing.

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"I am not a herald of anti-globalization," Mr. Magrette insisted this week in an interview with the French left-leaning daily Libération. "Globalization is taking place and the question is [one of defining] the rules. It's not just CETA. … The issue is determining how we are going to shape globalization for the next 20 or 30 years."

Whether CETA lives or dies, Mr. Magnette may just have done the West a very big favour.

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