Only a decade ago, France’s two traditional major parties — the conservative Republicans and the Socialists — won 57 percent of the vote between them in the first round of the country’s presidential elections. On Sunday, both parties together won less than half that — only 26 percent. Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old independent who placed first in this year’s round, declared that the nation had “discarded” the two once-dominant parties.
Now France will have two weeks of ferocious fighting between the two finalists — Macron and the populist National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Supporters of Le Pen note that her 22 percent of the vote was a significant improvement over past National Front showings and predict that a rising tide of disgust against “arrogant elites” will carry her to victory in the May 7 runoff. Indeed, she did make clear that she offered “a fundamental choice” between French sovereignty and what she called the “forces of globalization and open borders.” By contrast, Macron spoke in vague terms about how he stood for French “patriotism” rather than “anti-European nationalism.”
No one doubts that Le Pen will add to her support in the second round. But those who believe that she can duplicate the success of Donald Trump and win a surprise victory have to look at basic math. Trump trailed Hillary Clinton only narrowly in Election Day polls. The successful campaign to have Britain leave the European Union also trailed by only a small margin. But in a runoff with Macron, the populist Le Pen trails by an average of more than 20 percentage points. Campaigns can change minds, and polls can be off, but the surge of support Le Pen would need to win on May 7 would be unprecedented.
The reason that Le Pen probably has a ceiling is simple. François Fillon, the conservative who came in third in the first round, with 20 percent, put it simply when he advised his backers to vote for Macron on May 7. “The National Front’s history is marked by violence and ignorance,” he said. “Extremism can only bring unhappiness and division to France. There is no other choice than to vote against the far right.”
Only two months ago, Fillon himself was seen as the front-runner for the presidency. An admirer of Margaret Thatcher, he campaigned on free-market themes and promised to reduce the size of the state while still keeping France in the European Union. Philip Turle of Radio France Internationale noted that for the first time in decades, France was receptive to tough messages on security and economic reform.
Then it was revealed that Fillon had hired family members to be his aides in parliament and lied about the work they had done. Even though he found himself under formal investigation for corruption, he refused to leave the race.
If France doesn’t engage in real reform of its economy and improve its assimilation policies for immigrants, populists of both the Left and the Right will continue to gain strength.
Many of his supporters drifted to Macron. Although he served as a minister in the government of outgoing Socialist president François Hollande, Macron has promised to remove some of the shackles holding back French innovation and economic growth. Nonetheless, many Fillon supporters are loath to back Macron in the runoff. The clear favorite of media and political elites, Macron has never been elected to office and so has no track record of keeping promises.
But for many Fillon supporters, Le Pen’s call for an almost total ban on immigration is unrealistic, and her economic views echo left-wing calls for bigger public pensions, protection of the bloated civil service, and more government spending on a variety of programs. “Le Pen asks some of the right questions but still has many of the wrong answers,” Justine Le Blanc, a French lawyer who largely agrees with the National Front on immigration but thinks the party’s views overly simplistic, told me.
Regardless of which outsider wins the French presidency, neither will find governing easy. Macron’s En Marche (Forward) party didn’t exist even a year ago, and it’s unclear whether it will be able to elect many candidates in the parliamentary elections scheduled for June. Le Pen would in all likelihood face a parliament dominated by the traditional parties and leaning to the center-right, and it could stand in the way of her plans to hold a referendum on France’s future in Europe.
If Macron wins, which seems likely, European Union leaders will breathe a sigh of relief. But the forces that have roiled Britain and the U.S. in the last year aren’t going away. If France doesn’t engage in real reform of its economy and improve its assimilation policies for immigrants, populists of both the Left and the Right will continue to gain strength and will force a new confrontation with the nation’s establishment — sooner rather than later.
— John Fund is NRO’s national-affairs correspondent.