The news that Emmanuel Macron, the nice centrist candidate, was going to win the first round of France’s presidential election was greeted with undisguised delight by the European Union’s ruling elite. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, is not meant to weigh in on elections that are still underway in EU member states, but rules are for little people. He was quick to pass on his congratulations and wish Macron well in the run-off against the National Front’s not-always-so-nice Marine Le Pen two weeks from now. Juncker’s ‘foreign minister,’ Federica Mogherini, gushed that seeing the EU and French flags fly at Macron’s victory celebration was “the hope and future of our generation.” Michel Barnier tweeted that, as a “patriot and European,” he was confident about Macron’s prospects on May 7, and added that “France must remain European.” What Barnier, the faintly sinister former European Commissioner and member of France’s defeated Republican party who will serve as Brussels’ chief negotiator in the Brexit negotiations, meant by “European” was that France must remain in the EU, something that Le Pen might well put in jeopardy. That’s what really mattered.
Unemployment in France is approximately 10 percent, more than twice German levels. About a quarter of those between the ages of 16 and 25 are unemployed. French GDP growth has been sluggish for years, and government spending accounts for around 57 percent of GDP, compared with 44 percent in Germany.
Then there is terror: the Charlie Hebdo murders that began 2015, the massacre in Paris that ended it, the truck plowing into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice last year, and, most recently, the shooting in the Champs-Élysées that left one policeman dead and two other people seriously wounded just days before Sunday’s vote. These attacks are part of a wider Islamist assault on the West, but they are also symptomatic of failings in the effort to integrate France’s large Muslim minority, failings with consequences that have done more than their bit to contribute to the growth of the hard right. In 2016, Patrick Calvar, the head of France’s General Directorate for Internal Security, told a parliamentary enquiry that he feared a “confrontation between the far right and the Muslim world.”
And Federica Mogherini is cheered up by some flags.
Observing the behavior of the Bourbons and their aristocratic entourage on their return to France after the fall of Napoleon, the French statesman Talleyrand is said to have remarked that the king and his entourage had “learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” For some reason that quip came to mind as I read those tweets and other celebratory commentary from, it seemed, every corner of Davosworld,
Looking at Emmanuel Macron, it’s not difficult to understand why. He is one of them — likable, clever, the son of a professor and a doctor, with degrees from the right places, impressive stints in both investment banking and government to his credit, and a fondness for the EU, free trade, and the politics of the Third Way or whatever the old Blairite snake oil is known as these days. As a Socialist minister of the economy, he put together the Loi Macron package of reforms in 2014 and 2015 as a modest — very modest, and it says something about French politics that they had to be forced through by decree — step in toward deregulation. At about the same time, he left the Socialist party, before quitting the government the following year amid speculation about the independent presidential run that duly came to be.
Current polling suggests that Macron will beat Le Pen by a 60–40 margin on May 7, a margin comfortable enough to reinforce the establishment narrative that the French elections, like the Dutch and Austrian elections that preceded them, are evidence that Europe’s populist wave has crested. But 40 percent would still be a very high number for a candidate with the baggage of Marine Le Pen, who managed to conjure up the ghost of Vichy just a couple of weeks ago. The only other occasion on which the National Front reached the second round of a French presidential election was in 2002. Then, its candidate, Marine’s father Jean-Marie, took just 17.8 percent of the total.
Current polling suggests that Macron will beat Le Pen by a 60–40 margin on May 7.
There’s another problem for the tale of populist retreat: Between Le Pen’s share of the first-round vote (roughly 21.5 percent) and that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left-wing maniac and standard-bearer of France Unbowed (about 19.5 percent), four out of ten first-round ballots were cast for champions of the hard right and left. At 23.9 percent, Macron came out ahead of both of them, but not that far ahead. As establishment triumphs go, this looks a touch thin, even more so after you remember that neither of the two main parties managed to get their man into the final round. Former prime minister François Fillon, of the center-right Republicans, had looked at one point to be a strong challenger, but his campaign was dragged down by scandal. He is under criminal investigation, as is his wife, so the fact that he still managed to reach nearly 20 percent of the vote gives a hint of what might have been. As for the official candidate of the Socialist Party, poor Benoît Hamon, he was eclipsed by Macron and left with barely more than 6 percent of the vote.
So what now? Le Pen will press on, as candidates described as far right so often do, with a mix of policies from both ends of the political spectrum, a mix that has not harmed her blue-collar appeal. Her tough line on immigration and Islamic extremism is accompanied by a somewhat protectionist economic platform designed to appeal to those who have found themselves struggling to keep up. This blend runs through into Le Pen’s Euroskepticism, driven from the right by nationalism and from the left by her suspicion of the EU’s attachment to what is, by French standards, an over-fondness for the free market. Oh yes, she’d also pull France out of NATO.
When Macron (who has been endorsed by Fillon and Hamon, but not, interestingly, by Mélenchon, who has said he won’t be endorsing anybody) wins in the second round — and he will — the next hurdle he’ll face is the parliamentary elections in June. No one knows how his fledgling party, En Marche! (echoes of Jeb!) will fare, but assuming that coattails and a honeymoon work their magic, enough of his team may make it into the National Assembly to form the nucleus of some sort of centrist coalition. But putting that together is still likely to involve horse trading of a type that won’t make it easy to build even on the meager reformist achievements of the Loi Macron, let alone address the mess in which France — statist, sclerotic, and stuck with the Euro — now finds itself.
Away from the economy, Macron appears to believe that there is not that much that can be done about mass immigration (climate change is, he explains — of course he does — one of its causes). This is not something that appears to worry him much, and it’s not only National Front voters who will find his lack of concern off-putting. As for doing a better job of integrating France’s Muslim minority, it’s far from clear that Macron has anything new to offer. The same may hold true of terrorism. “This imponderable, this threat,” Macron explained after the Champs-Élysées shootings, “will be a fact of daily life in the coming years.”
France’s next presidential election isn’t until 2022, but Marine Le Pen — or someone like her — will be waiting, and that wait may not be in vain.
— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review.