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Most polls and pundits predict that Emmanuel Macron will easily win the French presidential election on May 7 with about 60 percent of the vote. Macron is a young cosmopolitan former banker and socialist minister, socially liberal, pro-Europe and pro-immigration, who favors a Nordic-style makeover of France that would combine fiscal discipline, cuts in public spending, and labor market reforms with policies to increase entrepreneurship, lower unemployment, and improve the flexibility of the French economy and its workers. His rival is Marine Le Pen, the notorious leader of the virulently anti-immigration, anti-EU National Front.
A tough debate this week — she called him a “smirking banker,” and he called her a “high priestess of fear” — so far appears not to have significantly reshaped the race.
Many believe Macron’s expected victory indicates that the populist wave that seemed to be sweeping the West after Brexit and Trump’s election has crested. But while a Macron win over Le Pen would certainly be good news for France and Europe, it would be premature at best to interpret such a victory as the beginning of the end for populism in France or the West.
In a debate this week, Marine Le Pen called Emmanuel Macron a “smirking banker” who would be soft on terrorism. Macron painted Le Pen as the “high priestess of fear.”
Eric Feferberg / Getty
Throughout the West, rising dissatisfaction with the economic and political status quo has fed the rise of populism and destabilized party systems. Before Macron’s impressive performance in the first round of the presidential election, many had been suggesting that European democracy itself might be threatened.
Some of those fears have subsided, but the French presidential race still offers an important window into several alarming European trends — even as it reflects some distinctive features of French political life.
Center-right and center-left parties built Europe as we know it. Now they are being hollowed out.
The first round of the presidential election came on April 23; the May 7 run-off is happening because none of the candidates got more than 50 percent of the vote. Macron received 23.9 percent, Le Pen 21.4 percent. Macron radiates optimism, insisting that the French are full of vitality and ready for “renewal.” Le Pen, on the other hand, is running on a protectionist, welfare-chauvinist, anti-Europe, and anti-multiculturalist platform. She paints a grim picture of a France under attack from the nefarious forces of globalization, Europeanization, and Islamism. If she doesn’t use Trump’s word “carnage,” she might as well.
While the final result may not turn out to be as unsettling to the French political order as it might have been, the election still reveals some seismic political shifts. The first is the decline of traditional center-right and especially center-left parties. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, which dates to 1958, the president will come from neither the center-right nor center-left. Indeed, the candidates of the traditional center-right and center-left failed to make it into the second round. The center-right candidate, Republican François Fillon, came in third, with 20 percent of the vote, after being humiliated by corruption scandals during the campaign. The candidate of the center-left, the Socialist Party’s Benoît Hamon, did even worse, with only about 6 percent.
Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, also of the Socialist Party, has described what has happened to the center left as “decomposition, demolition, deconstruction.” That fate represents one of the most important and destabilizing trends in French and European politics over the past generation. The decline of the center-left reflects — and furthers — the decline of the postwar order, which generated unprecedented prosperity, diminished class conflict, and undercut support for extremism.
The decline of the center-left has also made it more difficult to build stable governing coalitions, capable of reforming European economies, welfare states, immigration and integration policies, and the European Union. And of course, the decline of the center-left has left many voters, most notably from the working class, without a political home. That sense of rootlessness is a crucial cause of the rise of right- and left-wing populism over the past generation.
In France, the National Front has been the chief beneficiary of this trend, becoming the main party of the working class over the past years. Le Pen is projected to get over the half the working-class vote on Sunday. In the April 23 election, working-class votes also helped far-left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon gain three times the proportion of votes as the socialist Hamon (19.6 percent to 6 percent). To support his candidacy, Mélenchon had founded a new political movement, La France insoumise (France unbowed) which, as its name indicates, bears disturbing resemblances to the sovereignty-obsessed National Front.
“France unbowed” attributes the nation’s problems to various nefarious forces, including Europeanization, globalization, and wealthy capitalists; and Mélenchon is also wary of immigration. (Reflecting the disturbing overlaps between the extreme left and right, Mélenchon, alone among the first-round’s top-vote getters, has refused to endorse Macron in the second round, and some polls predict that over half his supporters will abstain or support Le Pen.)
Another trend reflected in French presidential elections is the emergence of a new voting cleavage that may overshadow the traditional left-right divide: It pits supporters of globalism, or “openness,” against its opponents. (Le Pen put it this way: “The divide is no longer between the left and right but between patriots and globalists!”) Both Macron and Le Pen claim to be neither of the left nor right, and their voters to a large degree reflect this new scrambling of categories.
Unlike in the US, young people in France support the right-wing populist
Le Pen is projected to handily beat Macron among younger voters (18 to 24) by about 40 percent to his 20 percent, and to come out about even among those aged 25 to 59, with each getting about 30 percent of the vote. This reflects France’s high overall unemployment rate (around 10 percent) and even higher youth unemployment rate (hovering around 25 percent). Long-term unemployment is also very high among prime-age voters, and many of the jobs created over the past years are temporary. Le Pen also does well in rural areas suffering from economic and demographic decline, as well as among the poor and those lacking higher education.
Macron, on the other hand, does well among college students, the highly educated, high earners and city dwellers — in short, the prime beneficiaries of globalization and Europeanization. He also beat Le Pen among the old, who are out of the labor force and have therefore been better insulated from the impact of the economic downturn. Youth unemployment, driven in part by rigid labor markets, helps to explain why voting trends among the young in France — college students excepted — differ so significantly from the US.
A third trend revealed in the French presidential election is broad and deep dissatisfaction with the status quo — a trend we’ve also seen in the US and UK. Polls consistently reveal declining confidence in the French economy and political institutions as well as a mounting sense of national decline, particularly among former left-wing voters.
Macron and Le Pen, accordingly, while differing dramatically in style and substance, both ran as “outsiders” promising radical change. Macron has never held elected office, would be France’s youngest-ever president, and refused to run as the candidate of a traditional political party. He has criticized the reigning elite as corrupt and out of touch and has promised to usher in “democratic revolution” in France. He quit the Socialist Party and began his own political movement, En Marche! (Forward!). As one of his supporters put it: “It’s a new party, a new movement, a new face … We’re worlds away from the old Socialists and the Republicans here.”
Still, there’s a reason that the French elite, and EU supporters in general, breathe sighs of relief when they look at his poll numbers. Le Pen represents a party that has long vilified traditional elites and parties — a vilification that is fully reciprocated. Le Pen, too, promises to sweep away the old order — but in her case, it’s to usher in a revolution that will return France to the “French.”
If Macron wins but stumbles in office, the door will be wide open for the nativist right
A Macron victory would represent an important defeat for populism, but dangers remain for France and other western countries.
To begin with, even if Macron wins, questions remain about whether he will be able to govern effectively — and thereby satisfy the deep longing in France for radical change. To enact policy, he will most certainly need to garner support from the traditional center-right Republicans, or the center-left socialists, or both, since his newly formed En Marche! movement is unlikely to get anywhere near a majority in the parliamentary elections in June.
And even should he be able to cobble together working parliamentary coalitions, he will also need a program capable of addressing France’s deep economic and social problems, as well as French citizens’ distrust of traditional elites and institutions.
Thus far Macron’s economic proposals overlap significantly with those of his predecessor Hollande — and those provoked a political backlash and were economically ineffectual. His calls for fiscal prudence and labor market reforms (French regulations currently limit individual companies’ ability to hire and fire workers, or to set wages and working conditions) have already given Le Pen an opening for attack. On May Day she asked workers if they were really going to vote for the “Uberization of society.” Workers have marched with signs saying “Plague or cholera? We don’t want either” — referring to the two candidates.
Socially, Macron faces the challenge of convincing the French that social liberalism, openness to immigration, and Europeanization can be reconciled with protecting traditional French cultural norms and historical traditions, which he says he values. Finally, Macron needs to diminish corruption and the power of French elites, widely viewed as out of touch.
Given Macron’s educational and professional background (he graduated from the elite École nationale d’administration (ENA), and then went on to work in elite departments in the French state and investment banking, as well as his probable dependence on traditional political parties in the Assembly, many wonder whether he can succeed. (Polls show that Macron’s supporters are less enthusiastic than Le Pen’s.)
Should Macron succeed, he could make the center-left attractive once again to France’s disaffected and dissatisfied citizens. If he doesn’t, then National Front–type populism is likely to return with even greater force at the next election.
Indeed, despite a probable loss on May 7, the historical trends for the National Front look good. Le Pen has made gains in every election since becoming head of the National Front — her 22 percent in the April election represented the FN’s highest vote share yet. And if she gets anywhere near 40 percent of the vote on May 7 that current polls predict, this would also represent a dramatic improvement in the FN’s vote share in the second round, and put the party in striking distance of a majority. (She would more than double the 2002 vote share of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.) And should the anti-FN front crumble further at the next election, a FN majority becomes even more plausible.
Centrist parties ought to forge alliances across national boundaries
Permanently defeating populism in both its right- and left-wing reforms will require more than struggling to win election after election; it will require addressing the immense dissatisfaction with the economic and political status quo that currently exists in the West. This will require new policies, and difficult political and economic choices — something traditional elites and parties have thus far been unable to produce.
It will also require voters accepting that building more effective welfare states, labor markets, and economies will require tough tradeoffs and a significant degree of short- to medium-term dislocation — something they have thus far not had the stomach for.
For Europe more broadly, the resuscitation of the center may require a New Deal at the regional level. Macron’s potential success. and populism’s fate, may therefore depend as much on the upcoming German elections as the French ones. Both Germany’s Christian Democrats and Social Democrats openly favor Macron and recognize that for him to succeed, some concessions will be necessary. A victory by the latter would help Macron the most, since the SPD has openly called for an end to “financial orthodoxy” and austerity.
Should the SDP win, it would not only represent another surprising victory for the center-left, it would also open up possibilities for a revitalization of the European project. Without such a cross-national alliance, Macron is likely to flounder — and European democracies are likely to remain mired in stagnation and dissatisfaction.
Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of a forthcoming book, Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancient Regime to the Collapse of Communism.