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“Vive la France!” & What to Make of the French Election

“Vive la France!” & What to Make of the French Election

Alright, liberal America, we can all breathe a sigh of relief–Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, breaking the wave of far-right populism that seems to be engulfing the west.

Well...kind of. 

Emmanuel Macron is a 39-year-old left-of-center politician who has never held elected office. He was a former investment banker and Minister of the Economy. He married his teacher, who he met when he was only 15. He will be the youngest French head of state since Napoleon.

His opponent, Le Pen, is the former president of the National Front, France’s far-right political party. Formerly, the National Front (French: Front National, or NF) was headed by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was called “the last samurai in politics” by his supporters and “the Devil of the Republic” by his opponents–so a very polarizing figure. Le Pen Sr. was nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim. Jean-Marie even infamously denied the Holocaust and has been accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. And while Marine Le Pen has worked hard to distance herself from that kind of rhetoric, she has undoubtedly embraced a populist and nationalist message. 

Macron belongs to the “En Marche!” political party, a social-liberal party founded in April 2016. Macron classifies the party as liberal, though many American political scientists classify it as centrist. Nevertheless, En Marche! is pro-EU, business-friendly, and socially aware. Macron was a member of the Socialist and Independent parties prior to his candidacy, establishing En Marche! as a transpartisan party, a “progressive party of both the left and the right.”

In the summer of 2016, Brexit raised global awareness of the new Right. The vote to leave the EU was largely fueled by a similar xenophobic and nationalist sentiment in the UK, and only months later, we here in the US elected Donald Trump as our 45th President. In France, rising unemployment and the loss of a national identity contributed to Le Pen’s popularity; similarly to the US and the UK, most of Le Pen’s supporters were rural, working-class, and white. The events leading up to the election in France–the burkini and headscarf bans, the terrorist attacks and state of emergency, and of course, the Syrian refugee crisis–have brought the question of what it means to be French to the forefront of the political conversation.

However, it would be naive to believe Macron’s victory marks the end of populism in Europe. France now joins the ranks of the Netherlands and Austria, who have, at first glance, quelled the rise of far-right populism. Yes, Le Pen’s defeat is blow to the emerging European far-right, but it is important to remember that Le Pen’s politics were once on the fringes of society. Her numbers, while seemingly marginal, are still much larger than they should be in a society that claims to be progressive. In a USA Today interview, Condoleezza Rice said: “I do really believe these populists are changing the character of the politics just by being there ... even if the candidates aren't winning.”

The polls predicting the outcome of the French election were, like the Brexit and the US election polls, way off, many predicting Macron would win by 22 points when in reality he won by 32. A good sign, no doubt, that she lost by more than we all predicted. However, it’s important to note why she lost. After the first round, the majority of Macron’s voters were voting against Le Pen rather than for Macron. And this phenomenon is similar to that of the 2016 US election, when many Republicans voted against Hillary Clinton and therefore for Donald Trump. What does this say about the differences between our two countries? Is the far right simply stronger in America than it is in France? Or has the French electorate earned the right to continue to lord their intellectual superiority over us Americans? 

The fact of the matter is, these comparisons between France, England, and the US are superficial at best, mainly because of the huge differences in the political systems. The Economist created a chart to analyze what would have happened in the French elections if France had its own electoral college. Both Macron’s and Clinton’s supporters were largely based in cities, whereas Trump’s and Le Pen’s voter base was dispersed across rural areas. They used some “basic” math to determine that if France were to have an electoral college, it is very possible that Macron and Le Pen could have tied. If we’re continuing to go by American rules, the vote would be left up to the representatives from each state. Would Macron still have prevailed? Perhaps, but we can never be sure.

Certainty seems to have been lost to us over the past year when it comes to politics. I doubt any politician, writer, or political scientist could have seen what was to come two years ago. Macron is fully aware that in order to unify France, he will have to reach across the cascade to Le Pen’s supporters, hear their complaints, and compromise. So long live France–or whatever France is becoming.

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