After the shock of Brexit in June and the surprise victory of Donald Trump in November, France experienced a political earthquake of a different kind Sunday by electing a progressive, unabashedly pro-EU former banker as its next president by a two-to-one margin.
At 39, Emmanuel Macron is the youngest president in France’s history, only founded his ‘En Marche’ movement a year ago, has no MPs in parliament and is the first French leader not to hail from one of the country’s traditional left or right parties. Though he served as an economy minister under the unpopular Socialist government, like Trump, Macron had never stood for election before launching his presidential bid and attained the highest post in the land by running as a political outsider unencumbered by the clunky machinery of mainstream parties. Wrapping himself in his own improbability on Sunday night, he told a flag-waving crowd in from of the Louvre museum in Paris: “Everyone said it was impossible. They didn’t know France.”
So how did Macron pull off what British commentator Simon Nixon described as “without question the most remarkable feat of political entrepreneurialism of modern times”? And where does this leave his political rivals in France and allies in Europe?
From the start of his insurgent campaign, Macron positioned himself as the fresh-faced candidate of change over continuity. “We need to do away with this political class, which is all too often made of men over 50 who never had a proper job,” he said on the campaign trail, pledging that half his party’s candidates in next month’s parliamentary elections would be women or newcomers.
In a country not renowned for its optimism, Macron also ran as the candidate of hope over fear, offering a relentlessly upbeat message of national reform and renewal to downbeat voters. No wonder Barack Obama—who campaigned on a similarly sunny platform in 2008—urged French voters to back Macron. “He appeals to people’s hopes and not their fears,” the former president said in a last-minute endorsement.
That was also an unmistakable broadside at Macron’s second-round opponent, the anti-immigrant nationalist Marine Le Pen, who based her campaign on fear of migrants, Muslims, terrorists, Brussels, Parisian elites, globalization and French identity being suffocated by a German-dominated EU. In a bad-tempered TV debate Tuesday, Macron accused his rival of being the “high priestess of fear” and drummed this message home in Sunday’s victory speech, telling cheering supporters: “We will not give in to fear, to division, to lies, to a love of decline or defeat.”
Macron’s victory is further proof that the populist wave that was supposed to sweep through Europe after shock wins for the leave EU campaign in Britain in June and for Trump in November simply hasn’t happened. In December, Alexander van der Bellen, a pro-EU former leader of the Green Party, defeated his far-right challenger to become president of Austria. And in March the Netherlands’ ruling Liberal prime minister Mark Rutte trounced far-right rival Geert Wilders, who was widely expected to top the poll.
But Macron’s political instincts shouldn’t be underestimated, either. His win offered a master class in how to defeat populists on both the far-left and far-right without compromising on principles or reverting to rabble-rousing demagoguery. It’s a playbook Democrats hoping to defeat Trump in 2020 would do well to remember—because it was once their own.
Like Bill Clinton and former UK premier Tony Blair, Macron understood that most elections are won by occupying the political center not pandering to its extremes, by appealing to progressive patriotism rather than aggressive nationalism and by having the courage to tell blunt truths to voters when necessary.
Instead of promising the impossible—like Le Pen with her pledge to lower the retirement age while reducing taxes—Macron made no attempt to sugar-coat unpalatable truths. When both Le Pen and Macron descended on a Whirlpool factory to address striking workers on the same day last month, Le Pen lambasted “uncontrolled globalization” and promised to save the tumble-dryer makers’ jobs. Macron, on the other hand, waded into the group of jeering workers and bluntly told them he was not there to make “airy promises” and there was little chance of saving their jobs.
France has the most centrally controlled economy in the 35-country club of Western states, the OECD, with government spending accounting for 57 percent of GDP in 2015. Its people also have a greater disdain for capitalism than any other rich country, according to one poll. Yet voters have just catapulted into the Élysée presidential palace a former Rothschild investment banker who has pledged to radically reduce the cost of hiring employees, slash public expenditure and cut corporate taxes by a quarter. Unlike Trump and most of his presidential rivals, Macron is also staunchly in favor of free trade. Speaking to Whirlpool factory workers, he said: “When she [Le Pen] tells you the solution is to turn back globalization, to close borders, she is lying.”
Impressive as Macron’s victory was, he will find it far harder to govern. The last two presidents of France—Nicolas Sarkozy and current incumbent François Hollande—also took office promising to reduce the country’s stubbornly high unemployment rate by boosting growth and reforming rigid labor laws. Both failed. The challenge for Macron will be steering his ambitious proposals through a parliament where his nascent En Marche—‘Forward’—party is unlikely to have a majority after next month’s parliamentary elections. However, Macron’s successful shepherding of a package of labor reforms through parliament two years ago while economics minister will encourage those calling for a leaner French state.
It is tempting, too, to view Macron’s victory as a vote for hope over fear and forward-thinking optimism over nativist nostalgia. But the harsh reality is the incoming president largely owes his landslide win to the disastrous campaign led by France’s two mainstream left and right parties—and that his surname is not Le Pen. One survey showed that 43 percent of those who voted for Macron Sunday did so out of opposition to Le Pen’s National Front, with only a third doing so to renew French politics.
Since taking over the leadership of the National Front in 2011, Marine Le Pen’s central goal has been to de-demonize a party long-associated with the thuggish neo-fascism of her father—founder and former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. But despite the soft-focus photos of ‘Marine’ cuddling kittens and the airbrushing of the Le Pen name and FN logo from campaign posters, the presidential campaign has proved that these changes are largely cosmetic and that the party is still wedded to its extreme nationalist and xenophobic past. After Le Pen stepped down as party head last month to focus on the election, the politician who replaced her was forced to resign after just three days for questioning whether gas chambers were used in the Holocaust.
As the campaign wore on, Le Pen’s carefully crafted image crumbled. While railing against corruption, nepotism and wealthy elites in Paris, the well-paid career politician found her party under investigation for pilfering European Parliament funds to pay for her staff. And despite attempts at projecting a softer image in the media, she came across as an unhinged conspiracy theorist in a head-to-head TV debate with Macron Tuesday, making unsubstantiated allegations against the judiciary for being biased and Macron for having a secret account in the Bahamas. Polls afterwards showed that Le Pen, who has been an elected politician for almost 20 years, was outgunned and outwitted by the calm but confident political novice Macron.
With France facing sluggish growth and high unemployment, the EU mired in an economic and existential crisis post-Brexit, the most unpopular sitting president in modern history and tainted opponents on both right and left, Le Pen may never have a better chance at winning the presidency. But it is too early to write off the 48-year old political knuckle-duster. Should Macron fail, Le Pen and her party will surely be poised to benefit.
The National Front has never won as many votes—10.6 million—as Sunday. And the party has taken a giant step towards becoming part of France’s political mainstream by beating both the established parties of the right and left in the first round. A further sign of the party’s normalization is the reaction to its progression to the run-offs. When Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the world by beating incumbent prime minister Lionel Jospin to make the second round of the presidential elections in 2002, 1.5 million French descended on the streets in protest. This time, Marine Le Pen’s advance was deemed so inevitable it was greeted by little more than a Gallic shrug.
Macron’s victory may be a setback for Le Pen but it is a body blow for the traditional left and right parties that have dominated French politics since the Second World War. Sunday’s run-off between Le Pen and Macron marked the first time since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 that a candidate from the Socialists or the Republicans failed to make the second round.
The Socialists, in particular, are a spent political force after their candidate Benoît Hamon only managed to win 6 percent in the first round—a quarter the vote of the National Front and its allies. If moderate socialists side with Macron in the upcoming parliamentary elections, the ruling party of outgoing president François Hollande may split permanently into more centrist and leftist factions. Either way it is set to receive a drubbing in the June 11 and 18 elections, with polls showing its seats are likely to be slashed from 295 to between 28 and 43.
The Socialists’ poor showing was partly due to the underwhelming performance of its candidate Hamon, the unpopularity of President Hollande, the charismatic campaign led by the fiery far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and tactical voting for Macron by voters determined to keep Le Pen out of the Élysée. But more worryingly for the left—in a plight that would be familiar to American Democrats—is how working-class voters have deserted it en masse. Swathes of eastern and northern France that used to vote Socialist or Communist have now switched to the National Front and a majority of workers nationally plumped for Le Pen Sunday.
The traditional French right is in crisis, too. The Republican Party was widely tipped to win the presidency at the start of the year but then shot itself in the foot by first choosing hardline former premier Francois Fillon in favor of the more popular centrist Alain Juppé and then failing to replace its candidate when it was alleged he had created ‘fake jobs’ for his wife and kids. The fact that the Fillon only narrowly pipped the far-left candidate was particularly humiliating for a party that has governed France for much of the post-war era.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who backed Le Pen, and Trump, who expressed support for her last month, may not be delighted with Macron’s win but EU chiefs in Brussels could hardly contain their excitement Sunday. “Congratulations to the French people for choosing Liberty, Equality and Fraternity over tyranny of ‘fake news’” tweeted European Council President Donald Tusk minutes after the result was announced. Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal grouping in the European Parliament, added: “Everyone is looking to France now to take the lead in a New Deal for Europe.”
It is little wonder Macron is the darling of Brussels. At a time when voters in many countries are turning their backs on the EU project—a June survey showed that only 38 percent of French had a positive view of the Union—Macron is one of the few leaders in Europe who enthusiastically supports further integration. He waved the EU flag during campaign rallies and walked on stage to celebrate his victory in Paris Sunday to the strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the EU anthem.
A Le Pen victory would have been fatal for the fragile European Union. But Macron’s win has given it a much-needed boost. The new president favors a permanent EU military headquarters and a separate parliament and government for the 19 countries that use the euro as their currency. With the UK on its way out of the bloc and a pro-EU candidate—either current chancellor Angela Merkel or Socialist challenger Martin Schulz—almost certain to win in Germany’s September poll, expect a big leap forward in EU integration under President Macron.
The problem for Macron is that being feted in European capitals for his unflinching federalism will not earn him votes in France’s industrial and rural heartlands, where electors have little appetite for ceding more sovereignty to Brussels. On the contrary, handing greater powers to the EU—and liberalizing the economy further—will only bolster support for far-right and far-left parties implacably opposed to more free trade and more Europe. Or as Le Pen framed it when conceding defeat to her centrist challenger Sunday, the central division in French politics ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections is between “patriots and globalists.”
And here lies the rub for the new president—in polls French voters recognize their country needs to change. But when the country’s leaders try to enact those changes—whether reforming labor laws, farm subsidies, pensions or the education system—protesters hit the streets and the reforms are mothballed. Or as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker once put it: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”