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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:

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,” 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.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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