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In France, the Center Holds

Marine Le Pen significantly underperformed expectations on election day yesterday, winning only slightly more than half of the votes won by president-elect Emmanuel Macron, or slightly more than a third of the total. Polls only a week ago showed her getting just above 40%, though over the past few days it was clear that she was bleeding rather than gaining support. Nonetheless, I think a lot of the commentariat expected that some combination of higher-than-estimated abstentions (turnout was indeed sharply down from recent prior elections) and enthusiasm by Le Pen’s base would lead to at least a small error in the opposite direction — a Macron win, but not an overwhelming one. But his victory was indeed overwhelming.

Why did Le Pen underperform? I can think of several plausible reasons. Most broadly, I suspect that there is a negative Trump effect on right-wing populism in Europe, partly because Trump’s victory has energized the opposition to that populist surge while removing America as a necessary antagonist for European populists, and partly because Trump has been such an embarrassing failure already. In France specifically, I suspect that Le Pen’s euroskepticism was more of a double-edged sword than it was in Britain, and that there was real concern about Le Pen’s failure to articulate a new course. Tactically, I suspect that Mélenchon’s endorsement helped bring some of his supporters around, and the massive document dump on the eve of the second round likely hurt Le Pen badly and helped Macron by energizing his supporters.

So the center held, and advocates of the vitality of that center can reasonably rejoice. USA Today‘s editorial on Macron’s victory starts off on the expected note [1]:

The French roundly rejected the isolationism and fear-mongering of populist French candidate Marine Le Pen in the presidential election Sunday, reembracing the European Union, the continent’s decades-old experiment in economic union, stability and peace borne out of the ashes of World War II.

For an America that engaged in two costly wars in the past century spawned by a divided Europe, that’s good news.

But as soon as you dig in to that very editorial, more ominous tones begin to sound. Macron does not yet have a parliamentary majority to support his program. He has a limited amount of time to demonstrate that he can make headway in reducing France’s persistently high unemployment. As the editorial says at one point: “while the messenger of French populism has suffered a defeat, the underlying concerns about globalization and Muslim immigration remain potent forces.”

This is ultimately the question. If Macron’s program has the answers to France’s problems, then his election is an extremely good thing. We should none of us be cavalier about tossing out arrangements that have anchored our politics for so long, and nobody should be sanguine about the rise of the populist right. Populism is a symptom of deep dysfunction in a political system.

But you can’t crow about the decisive defeat of a symptom. You can only be pleased when the disease itself goes into remission. And I remain very skeptical that Macron has anything resembling a cure in his toolbox — among other things because he has mis-diagnosed the disease.

Which is the theme of my “opposing view [2],” which appears on the same page:

The primary reason why Le Pen did as well as she did [twice as well as her party’s best prior performance] is the widespread and growing discontent with the future that France has been pursuing for the past generation, and which Macron’s campaign exemplified: a future of ever-closer European integration and ever-weaker bonds of solidarity uniting the people of France.

Questions of sovereignty and identity were central to both campaigns. And while a clear majority of French voters have rejected precipitous withdrawal from the European Union, the stigmatization of immigrants, and an open embrace of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the discontent with the French establishment consensus in all three areas is manifestly growing. Most fundamental is the urgent desire by French citizens simply for greater control over their individual and collective lives — a sense that they can choose their future, and not merely suffer it.

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21 Comments To "In France, the Center Holds"

#1 Comment By Erdrick On May 8, 2017 @ 7:52 am

I suspect that there is a negative Trump effect on right-wing populism in Europe, partly because Trump’s victory has energized the opposition to that populist surge while removing America as a necessary antagonist for European populists, and partly because Trump has been such an embarrassing failure already.

I think this is right, and I don’t think that the Davos types could have designed a better person to discredit the legitimate grievances of the populist right than Donald Trump. As a bonus, and in contrast to Le Pen, Trump is no populist or nationalist and has no intention of addressing any of the issues he ran on.

#2 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 8, 2017 @ 8:10 am

Right wing populist squeeks by through electoral college fluke, with less than a plurality of the vote: clearly there must be “widespread and growing discontent with the future.”

Right wing populist gets crushed, and barely garners a third of the vote: ditto.

This narrative, apparently, is impervious…

Maybe, just maybe, life in France is not so bad. Maybe most people are not discontented. Public opinion surveys show this to be true. And France consistently places high up for all of those “quality of life” factors, and, for all the gloom and doom about its economy, for GDP and the like too.

And according to Nate Silver (the one stat boy who was onto the possibility of a Trump win), this makes “the 6th straight European election…where the nationalist underperformed polls.” Looks like the right wing populist party did also did badly in the Schleswig-Holstein (Germany) state elections today. The AfD is slipping in the polls nationally, while Euro Queen Merkel’s party seems to be cruising along.

I eagerly await articles and interviews with, and endless analysis of, and pandering to, all of the Macron voters, as we have gotten with the Trump voters. The non angry and discontented. Those not fearful of the future. Or of the “Other.”

And, by the way, the only poll out there shows Macron’s new party doing rather well in the upcoming parliamentary elections, winning close to a majority of the five hundred plus seats. And the FN, the home of the widespread and growing discontented? Projected to win, at most, less than 50 seats, and maybe as few as 25.

#3 Comment By Donnie Bob On May 8, 2017 @ 8:39 am

Forgive me, but Emmanuel Macron is not a centrist. He is a mainstream, establishment socialist who served faithfully as an aide to François Hollande prior to becoming a member of Hollande’s government – the quintessential Sciences Po left-leaning bureaucrat. And En Marche! is simply a new manifestation of the status quo and a continuation of the Hollande presidency.

On Sunday, the center did not hold in France. The center was defeated in the first round of the election. The left held, and I believe that this will become increasingly obvious in the coming days.

#4 Comment By Joseph R. Stromberg On May 8, 2017 @ 8:50 am

In the early 1990s the historian Eugen Weber attributed the rise of European ‘right-wing’ populism to the realization by part of the ‘sovereign’ people that they were merely stooges.

‘Sovereign stooges’: fair enough.

#5 Comment By Viriato On May 8, 2017 @ 9:04 am

I don’t disagree with anything you say here, but I think what ultimately killed Le Pen was her lackluster debate performance the other day. If you want to leave the euro, you’d better have a very clear, well-articulated plan for how to bring that about while minimizing turmoil and uncertainty. A plan is not, of course, a road map that you will follow to a tee if elected… there are too many surprises and variables in the real world for that to be feasible. But a plan is a starting point for achieving your goal, and shows that you have a solid agenda and have a realistic sense of what it will take to implement it. In other words, having a plan shows that you are capable of governing.

By failing to lay out a specific plan at the debate, Le Pen created the impression among many voters that she is not capable of governing. Whether that impression is in fact accurate or not, it is a reasonable impression for one to have after watching the debate.

Anybody can criticize the status quo and fantasize about a better world. But it takes more than that to govern effectively and successfully. That’s why you or I are not politicians.

As someone who is deeply disillusioned with the direction Europe is heading on all fronts, I am disappointed by the result of the French election, but not surprised. As a Le Pen supporter, it pains me to say this, but it must be said: Given her failure to articulate a credible plan for restoring France’s sovereignty, underperforming is the result that she deserved.

Don’t cry for Le Pen. Cry for France, and for Europe (the civilization, not the EU, which, in my estimation, is not “Europe” any more than the USA is “America.”)

#6 Comment By collin On May 8, 2017 @ 9:55 am

Truth be told, this was a landslide and the voters clearly rejected Le Pen versus globalist Macron.

1) Le Pen did not have a good economic vision compared Trump. France shares a currency with the EU and has ‘more’ international trade than the US. (‘More’ meaning that France is smaller and trade with Germany is international.) There are a lot of jobs and savings accounts tied to the EU.
2) The Trump economic right-center economics and right-wing immigration does has a limited voting set. Somehow Trump was able to keep most of the right center voters. (The ones HRC failed to win.)
3) I suspect the Putin threat is more concerning in Europe than US.

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On May 8, 2017 @ 10:01 am

You write, Noah: “The primary reason why Le Pen did as well as she did is the widespread and growing discontent with the future that France has been pursuing for the past generation, and which Macron’s campaign exemplified: a future of ever-closer European integration and ever-weaker bonds of solidarity uniting the people of France…”

You’re entirely right! If Macron follows his campaign promises, he will surely further weaken the “ever-weaker bonds of solidarity uniting the people of France.” Here is a clear example of how Macron’s policies will further weaken those bonds of solidarity:

As you correctly point out, Noah, “[Macron] has a limited amount of time to demonstrate that he can make headway in reducing France’s persistently high [currently 10%+] unemployment.” And yet Macron has put forward no real answer to the loss of jobs to globalization other than the implementation of the type of austerity pushed by globalists like Angela Merkel and the Chief Global Strategist at Morgan Stanley, Ruchir Sharma. (“How Macron Would Fix the French Economy…Slim down one of the world’s fattest welfare states.” New York Times, April 27 2017) In other words, Macron will throw austerity at unemployment, thus bringing few jobs, but definitely making much worse the suffering of the unemployed.

Thus, will Macron make “ever-weaker [the] bonds of solidarity uniting the people of France.”

#8 Comment By JZ On May 8, 2017 @ 10:54 am

You have to have a very short memory to consider this a victory for the establishment. Roughly 34% of the French just voted for a party that is widely derided as racists and dangerous by ALL the powers that be in Europe. This is unprecedented in the Fifth Republic. From downplaying Nazi gas chambers to 34% of an advanced western democracy…stunning.

What will be interesting to watch is whether the FN (or whatever new name it takes) can coalesce this margin into a true base. From there they could strike out for a true governing majority in the years to come.

#9 Comment By lex salica On May 8, 2017 @ 11:07 am

This misses the point.

Consider this: a formerly marginal populist party is now the official opposition – in FRANCE. The winner, Macron, of no official party, won with the votes of an unsustainable motley of the remains of what were for decades France’s major parties. Correction, he doesn’t even head them, as he will learn to his sorrow during the parliamentary elections shortly to follow.

So no, the center did not hold. It collapsed on top of Macron. “The populist moment” in France has passed in the same sense that “the Tea Party moment” passed in 2010. Meaning that it didn’t. It is taking root instead.

#10 Comment By Kevin On May 8, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

“Consider this: a formerly marginal populist party is now the official opposition – in FRANCE.”

Given that opinion polls now show that the NF is set to be the fifth or sixth largest party in the parliament, that it, wrong, to put it mildly.

““The populist moment” in France has passed in the same sense that “the Tea Party moment” passed in 2010. Meaning that it didn’t. It is taking root instead.”

Thanks for confirming that the TP libertarianism and concern about deficits for a thin cover for a racial panic.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 8, 2017 @ 12:41 pm

“European populists, and partly because Trump has been such an embarrassing failure already.”

This comment is backwards. First Mr Trump did not invent the current pushback against careless or insensitive economic policies. Europe has been in a sense reeling, especially France for nearly ten years. The riots and running battles are no secret. The unemployed disgruntled immigrants have been in the news fo a long time.

I am sure that Mr Trump would love to garner the credit for this. Anyone would. But as I remain convinced that Mr Trump merely stepped into a void, he did not create. Those opposed love to create a monster or figure that doesn’t exit and then proceed to make arguments against their fiction. It sounds so fortuitous, but it remains a case of fiction.

The loss in France has everything to do with the French and nothing or little to do with Mr Trump.
_____________

This far, we haven’t invaded anywhere and I remain convinced that while things are stagnant, we aren’t going to see much in the way of regime change policies in the long run. Excuse me,

120 days in office is akin to a data set (sample) just too small to make any predictions. Unless of course one actually believes the press.

In every way the anti-trumpsters have lost but they cling to the narrative of catastrophe and failure based on their preconceived notions and parameters of what constitutes success.

<r Krauthhammer was detailing that Mr Trump is now normalized (in the establishments pocket). I think he may be surprised yet.

#12 Comment By Kurt Gayle On May 8, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

@ JZ, who says: “Roughly 34% of the French just voted for a party that is widely derided as racists and dangerous by ALL the powers that be in Europe.”

“Widely derided as racists and dangerous by ALL the powers that be in Europe”?

Can you find please provide, JZ, a reference to support that?

Or might you prefer to walk that back?

#13 Comment By paris in the spring On May 8, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

“Thanks for confirming that the TP libertarianism and concern about deficits for a thin cover for a racial panic.”

No, no! It is I who should thank you for this cogent rebuke.

And on behalf of my fellow uneducated racist white trash I’d like to apologize for failing to see any contradiction between demanding an end to reckless, irresponsible fiscal policy and demanding an end to the reckless, irresponsible mass immigration policy.

#14 Comment By Jesse On May 8, 2017 @ 2:57 pm

What the French election proved is without the approval and support of the center-right establishment, right wing populism can’t win.

If every major member of the Republican Party had endorsed Clinton or endorsed a non-vote, Trump wouldn’t have won. Period.

#15 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 8, 2017 @ 5:39 pm

The final tally shows, among all registered voters:

Macron: 44%
Abstention + spoiled ballots: 34%
Le Pen: 22%

Macron’s forty four per cent is in line with most presidential election winners in the Fifth Republic:

[3]

Le Pen’s total as the loser was abnormally low. Only her father did worse.

The high abstention and “null et blanc” vote might be seen as a win for leftwing radical Melonchon, who refused to endorse either of the two runoff candidates.

#16 Comment By Kurt Gayle On May 8, 2017 @ 6:02 pm

philadelphialawyer says (8:10 a.m.): “…According to Nate Silver…this makes ‘the 6th straight European election…where the nationalist underperformed polls’.”

Could it be that it’s not so much that the nationalist parties “underperformed” as it is that the polls were wrong.

Could it be that the polls in question predicted that the nationalist parties would finish higher so that – following the elections — it could be said of the nationalist parties that they “underperformed”?

#17 Comment By Charles Barkley On May 8, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

“Could it be that the polls in question predicted that the nationalist parties would finish higher so that – following the elections — it could be said of the nationalist parties that they underperformed ”

Seriously ? After a year of people screaming that leftist pollsters were undercounting nationalist support to further establishment agenda , you just turn around on a dime and say they were actually exaggerating their numbers, to support the establishment agenda ? Seriously, don’t you have an ounce of self respect ?

Also, how do you explain that the pollsters got the results of the first round in France to a T? Were the results falsified to make the pollsters look good ?

#18 Comment By Charles Barkley On May 8, 2017 @ 7:02 pm

“And on behalf of my fellow uneducated racist white trash I’d like to apologize for failing to see any contradiction between demanding an end to reckless, irresponsible fiscal policy and demanding an end to the reckless, irresponsible mass immigration policy”

Nothing says ” we are sick of a reckless fiscal policy” like voting for the guy promising to cut taxes, enlarge the military and not touch entitlements.

#19 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 8, 2017 @ 7:02 pm

KG:

Of course (as to the first question, the second one seems a bit CT). But I think it shows there is not much likelihood of any hidden strength for those parties. And now the nationalists have lost in Austria, Holland and France.

#20 Comment By Philippe On May 9, 2017 @ 8:21 am

“Could it be that it’s not so much that the nationalist parties “underperformed” as it is that the polls were wrong.”

Polls in France were mostly correct. Lepen underperformed in the end because the end of her campaign wasn’t meant to gather votes but to give her the posture of being “The Opposition”. It is clear in how she went full attack in the last debate and crystal clear in her concession speech.

The macronLeaks and how Philippot (the FN president) tried to score on it at the last minute might also have backfired as it reminded people of the blatant stupid fakes he had tweeted before.

———-

“Most fundamental is the urgent desire by French citizens simply for greater control over their individual and collective lives — a sense that they can choose their future, and not merely suffer it”

I don’t understand this and don’t see it.

The success of the far right in France is a combination of factor : high unemployement (especially youth unemployement ), fear of Islam (not just terrorism) , a Europe that is too much about Free market, a growing polarisation of the society.

As some other articles have said, France was probably saved because there is no FoxNews : no mainstream right wing populist media. Perhaps because the French are too smart (too well educated) to consider that level of bias as being mainstream. Yes Liberation has left wing bias, Yes LeFigaro has right wing bias but this isn’t in the same league as Fox.

However, conspiracy theories are taking ground and at one point, for a time at least, some form of populism will win some form of election.

The current political situation in France is also obviously unstable. The system was meant to support 2 or 3 parties, there were 5 credible candidates in the presidential and 2 of the outsiders won and all the representants of the traditional parties underperformed. This doesn’t mean there necessarily will be chaos, but there will be changes.

#21 Comment By Mark Cohe On May 9, 2017 @ 9:54 am

The comments neglect what in my view is the essential. The French have in fact launched a revolution from the center. The presidential dominance as envisaged by the Vth Republic Constituoon has now been placed in limbo. The balance has swung. We are back to what theorists would consider to be the equilibrium between chief of state and parliament that democracy requires. France’s En Marché will depend on the ability of Macron together with the parliamentarians,to be elected in June, to find a path forward. The president will be the leader but can’t do it alone, as when the parliamentary majority blindly followed the president as if he were an autocracy. Now what will happen will spend on leadership, a willingness to form consensus around very specific programs. The polemics of Right and Left Europhilia and Europhobia, market va State economic controls etc etc will depend on a process that we call democratic. And instead of resorting to the streets to provoke change the French may just have to look to legislative elections as their best and only way to solve the problems even brigade the gaps