National Security & Defense

Macron Survived Russia’s Dirty Tricks, but Even Bigger Challenges Await

Macron speaks at a rally in Paris, May 1, 2017. (Reuters photo: Philippe Wojazer)
Beating Marine Le Pen was just a start. Now, the real work begins for the French president-elect.

Emmanuel Macron vanquished Marine Le Pen in yesterday’s French presidential election. The result again confounded pollsters, who had largely converged on a prediction that Macron would take 62 percent of the vote. He instead took 66.1 percent. As Nate Silver noted on Twitter: “A bigger error than Brexit and much bigger than Trump.”

If we calculate the tally to include abstentions and blank ballots, another remarkable result emerges: Le Pen managed to come in third in a two-man race. According to the Interior Ministry, 20.8 million voters backed Macron, 16.8 million abstained or cast blank votes, and just 10.6 million pulled the lever for Le Pen. This was a sharp slap in the face to her, her party, and everything in French history it represents.

For those of us who feared Le Pen would do well enough to claim a moral victory, the relief was immense, and any American with his head screwed on straight should share in it. Le Pen’s most memorable line in last Wednesday’s debate may have been, “France will be led by a woman. It will be me or Mrs. Merkel,” but in truth, France under Le Pen would have been led by a man, and that man would have been Vladimir Putin. As has been widely reported, Le Pen is in hock to the Kremlin, which funded her campaign. During one of her visits to Moscow, Le Pen explained her views to Kommersant: “The economic crisis gives us the opportunity to turn our back on the United States and turn to Russia.” That many Americans found this fact irrelevant when asking themselves whether Le Pen’s victory would be in their interests reflects a new and strange species of geopolitical masochism. That members of Congress, including Steve King and Dana Rohrabacher, travelled to France to endorse Le Pen is both incomprehensible and unforgivable.

Election silence descended upon France at midnight on Friday. By long-established law, this is when campaigning must end. Directly before the silence fell, however, nine gigabytes of data, putatively e-mails stolen from Macron’s campaign, were dumped onto Pastebin. The campaign had only enough time to confirm it had been the victim of a massive hack; it could not otherwise respond, nor could French journalists report on the contents of the documents. It looked to be what it probably was: a last-minute Russian bid to tip the scales in favor of Le Pen. On Saturday, France’s election commission met and confirmed to the public that the leaked data apparently came from Macron’s “information systems and mail accounts from some of his campaign managers.” The documents, they said, were probably mingled with fakes. They urged French media and citizens not to relay their contents.

Some Americans, surprised by this, mistakenly concluded the blackout had been imposed specifically in response to the attack; a number of them even embellished this theory by envisioning an establishment bent on protecting its privileges and concealing the truth about Macron. Others concluded the silence of the French media was voluntary. Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast, for example, tweeted, “Most French media ignoring the hack. See? It can be done. It’s called news judgment.” Neither was the case. This is longstanding French election law. Had evidence surfaced that Le Pen was a shapeshifting reptile from outer space, it wouldn’t have been any different. Once election silence descends, it descends.

Because the leak hit right before the pre-election news blackout, there wasn’t time to pinpoint its provenance, but French voters were already entirely aware that the Kremlin had been busily involved in this election. The French edition of Sputnik, along with the Kremlin’s other local propaganda organs and organelles, pumped out rumors that Macron was a closeted homosexual supported by a “very rich gay lobby.” That charge reflected Russian obsessions more than French ones; no one here seemed much to care. But other Kremlin propaganda was better targeted to French culture, including insinuations, quickly reproduced throughout France’s faschosphère, that Macron was something like an honorary learned elder of Zion, a man so tainted by his appetite for banking and his rootless cosmopolitanism as to be Jewish in function if not in form. The hacking and phishing attacks on Macron’s campaign were sufficiently unrelenting that Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault issued a warning to Moscow in February: “This kind of interference in French political life is unacceptable.”

It is possible that French voters previously inclined to dismiss the warnings of Russian tampering as exaggeration or partisanship were sobered by the last-minute leak.

And it was. It is possible that French voters previously inclined to dismiss the warnings of Russian tampering as exaggeration or partisanship were sobered by the last-minute leak. It’s even possible, if not provable, that some of the discrepancy between the polls and the results was owed less to a flaw in the pollsters’ methodology than to voters’ disgust with the effort to manipulate them.

American cyber-security experts quickly spotted Cyrillic script in the metadata, which suggests either that the authors of the attack were the usual suspects or that someone wanted it to look that way. It would be highly pleasing to think that the discrepancy between the polls and the final vote was owed to the decision by French voters to uphold the French tradition and round up the usual suspects.

It is true that there is no cause now for an access of optimism. A France so furious and frustrated that 10.6 million of its citizens would vote for the National Front will not easily be repaired. The country is balkanized: It has been whipsawed by rapid deindustrialization; it is plagued by high unemployment; and it has failed to properly integrate many of its Muslim citizens — although Americans who believed this problem to be so severe as to warrant the election of Le Pen, and even to mount their own efforts to elect her, have been deceived. It is a fortunate thing that they succeeded only in insulting the people they had hoped to manipulate. That our own citizens, in turn, were obviously manipulated is now our problem to solve, not France’s.

We should be pleased by the result but realistic. Macron is too young for the job, he has never been elected to any office before, and he has no established party. He owes much of this victory to luck, in the form of his major rivals’ self-destruction. But at least (unlike, for example, Obama, to whom he has been compared) he seems aware of all of this. His first speech as president-elect in the courtyard of the Louvre struck a grave tone. The solemn stagecraft — he spoke before the symbol of France’s royal power, now the center of its republican culture, following the playing of the European anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” — seemed required to soften the unnerving reality: France still has serious problems, and now it has an untested, 39-year-old president, too.

“The task before us, my dear fellow citizens, is immense,” he said, repeating the word “immense” several times. “We must restore morality to public life, defend the vitality of democracy, strengthen our economy, build new safeguards in the world arounds us, put Europe on a new foundation, give everyone a place, assure the security of French citizens.” All of this is true, and there’s little time to do it.

His tone frustrated those in the mood to celebrate, but I thought it suitable. “I’m aware of the divisions in our nation which have led some people to extreme votes,” he said. “I’m aware of the anger, anxiety, and doubts that a large proportion of you have also expressed. It’s my responsibility to listen to them,” he said. He promised the voters that he would do his utmost to ensure that in five years’ time, they would have no reason to vote for extremes.

It is a big job. It will take a lot of luck to pull off, even for Macron, who so far has been one of the luckiest French politicians I’ve seen. Here’s hoping he succeeds.


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— Claire Berlinski is a freelance journalist who lives in Paris. She is crowd-funding a book about European politics, Brave Old Word: Europe in the Age of Trump. She would be grateful for your support.

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