In the end, Emmanuel Macron won by a landslide, 66 to 34 percent, exceeding by four points Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 drubbing of Goldwater. His victory had been expected, but a week before the vote it seemed quite possible the National Front could pick up 40 percent, and after Le Pen’s successful press conference announcing an alliance with Debout La France’s Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, I thought 42 or 43 percent was possible. None of my FN contacts shared that view.
Then came the debate on the evening of May 3, after which a snap poll announced Macron the winner by 64 to 32 percent. I thought the debate far more even, that Marine Le Pen scored well by attacking Macron’s weakness toward terrorism, his support from various ambiguously Islamist groups, and more generally his identity as candidate of an unchecked and “savage” globalization. But I could see Le Pen fumble technical questions on withdrawal from the euro and France’s withdrawal from it—an issue that reflects a genuine split within the National Front itself. Many French voters found Le Pen overly aggressive during the debate, too sarcastic, using rhetoric more suited to a rally than a debate; several observers claimed that the entire years-long effort to normalize or “de-demonize” her party was set back by her performance.
It’s hard to say what works: French presidential debates (Mitterrand v. Giscard) can reach genuinely high intellectual levels, but most do not. But to many, Le Pen’s performance lacked the lofty or pedagogical tone that France expects of its presidents. In any case, one FN contact described to me the evening’s performance as “honestly, a shipwreck”—which was not what I thought I had seen at all. In the days remaining, nothing Marine Le Pen could do would reverse the outcome. One must recall that she was running against virtually the entire French media and political establishment, thousands of well-positioned, ideologically committed professionals working to ensure her failure. The fact that roughly half the country supports her on the issues (and more than that on immigration) might have counted for more. But the strategy of demonizing Le Pen, or creating an emotionally charged word cloud where Marine Le Pen and Vichy, Le Pen and Nazism are pushed together, is omnipresent in the French media. It’s a misrepresentation of course, but there is enough in her party of her father to give it continued life, a lie with very long legs.
Macron has impressed many people, and it’s certainly true that there is a yearning in the French establishment to end formally the increasingly fictive left-right division in the establishment. For years Marine Le Pen has elided the UMP (the former initials of the center-right party) and the socialists (the PS) as “UMPS”—in order to illustrate that the false cleavage between the two well-established parties gave French voters no real choice about the direction of their country. Now Macron has essentially reified this campaign joke, promising to govern as neither right nor left, and in the process dispatching the two main political parties deep into ditch. One or both will recover, but the political landscape will be changed.
Honestly very little is known about Macron’s leadership or political capabilities, and he may actually have them. His victory seems a little like a silent banking-community coup, made possible by the political collapse of the Socialists, a personal scandal enveloping the winner of the right-wing party, and the National Front’s enduring weaknesses. He will face the same difficulties France has had for years. He is likely to be forceful and successful in sweeping away long-established worker protections—he will do it by executive order when France is on summer vacation—which might make France more economically competitive while sapping what remains of a distinctive and appealing character of French life, one less attuned to the unforgiving rhythms of the marketplace than, say, the U.S.
He seems to be a committed multiculturalist, far more so than his socialist predecessor Francois Hollande, and the denationalization of France will proceed rapidly—until either it is halted or the process is irreversible. About French identity, Macron speaks in the language of the left-wing multicultural university—there is no such thing as French culture, but rather “cultures”; the colonization of Algeria was a crime against humanity. In the hacked Macron documents released by WikiLeaks before the election are proposals—in the idea stage, not yet formal policy—to reorient French education as to stress France’s historical ties to Morocco and Algeria, away from white Christian Europe. Something like this was the main initiative of the fictional Muslim president in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission. I can’t really imagine Macron will proceed in this direction, but it is in the idea set of some who will have his ear.
The National Front will face a reckoning. Many in the party (often grouped around Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen) were skeptical of the left-wing Chevènementiste elements in the platform: the emphasis on withdrawing from the euro, the efforts to swoop up former Communist Party voters by supporting union economic demands, and the concomitant short-shrifting of socially conservative themes. I think the Marine Le Pen line (in part created by her former advisor Chevènementiste Florian Philippot) was probably correct—but Philippot will face internal challenges to his authority within the party: everyone could see Marine Le Pen’s prime-time difficulties in explaining how France could leave the euro without damage to its businesses or savings accounts.
The best thing that could happen for the right, for France, and for the world is a working alliance and perhaps eventually a merger between elements of the National Front and the “souveraniste” elements of the right—Gaullists who are skeptical about France’s adhesion to Brussels and high rates of immigration. Younger French people of this orientation have already joined the National Front, but an older generation of established politicians has kept separate. Despite her drubbing this time, Marine Le Pen remains an extremely gifted politician, and I believe it’s not impossible to imagine that her best future role may be as an important ally to some souveraniste figure from the center-right, like Nicholas Du Pont-Aignan. The steps needed to arrive at such a reshuffling are difficult to imagine, but France does need a successful patriotic right in order to survive, and the forces to create one do exist.