His face shining, his voice resonant, clearly sensitive to the extraordinary thing he had just achieved, Emmanuel Macron gave a remarkable speech Sunday night to a delirious crowd in front of the pyramid of the Louvre. Firm, hopeful, generous, intelligent, full of historical allusions, the speech was widely and deservedly praised in the French press. Macron saluted “the France that the world is looking to, for tonight it is Europe, it is the whole world that is looking to us. Europe and the world expect that we will everywhere defend the spirit of the Enlightenment, which is threatened in so many places.”
As he spoke, it was easy to think that Macron was what the French had really wanted all along in this election: a centrist; a passionate supporter of the European Union (tellingly, the EU anthem “Ode to Joy” played at the rally before “La Marseillaise”); a pure product of the French elite who nonetheless stands outside the traditional party system; a former investment banker willing to shake the rigid retaining walls of the French welfare state. The fact that Macron did better than the polls predicted, winning 66 percent of the vote against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, only reinforced this suspicion.
Because elections really do change things, there is a natural temptation to see their results as inevitable, the product of deep forces welling up for years below the surface and finally breaking forth in an explosion of democratic energy. But this impression is often mistaken. If a number of votes equivalent to less than 1/20th of 1 percent of the American population had shifted last November, many commentators would have spoken confidently about the limits of populism in United States, of the inevitable effects of demographic change, of the irresistible power of American political dynasties, and much else. (At the same time, of course, they would have damned Trump for his disastrous presidential campaign while praising Clinton’s strategic brilliance.) It is all too easy, once the results come in, to forget how much the outcome of an election can depend on sheer chance, and how little the ultimate choice may reflect the actual desires of an electorate faced with a small number of unpalatable options.
While The New York Times pronounced that Marine Le Pen could not follow in Donald Trump’s footsteps because “French history is different,” the truth is that she could have come very close to winning—and may yet do so at some point—and that Macron’s victory was far from certain or inevitable. He may have saved the Fifth Republic from falling into the hands of a xenophobic populist nationalist, but we must resist the temptation to say that deep historical forces were at work to bring a centrist to power. We must remember how much chance in fact mattered in this election.
Had the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné not broken stories this winter about the right-wing candidate François Fillon’s hefty payments to family members as no-show “parliamentary assistants,” then Fillon—the nominee of the neo-Gaullist Républicains—might well have edged past Macron in the first round of the election. Fillon was the most conservative mainstream-party candidate the French have seen in many decades, and if the second round had featured him against Le Pen, most commentators would have offered up a narrative about France’s sharp turn to the right. It also mattered that Le Pen made some eminently avoidable mistakes after the first round of voting: She edged away from her earlier rejectionist stance on the EU in a manner that made her look blatantly opportunistic, and she turned in a poor debate performance against Macron, getting caught in a series of clear lies. Perhaps, looking at Trump’s success in the United States, Le Pen thought it wouldn’t matter if she came off as mendacious and unprepared, but France does not have the equivalent of Fox News, Breitbart, and conservative talk radio, ready to spin even the most obvious debate defeats as victories to an audience that views the mainstream media as illegitimate.
It’s also worth remembering that Le Pen, despite ending up with fewer votes than expected, nevertheless did almost twice as well against Macron as her father, Jean-Marie, did against the scandal-plagued Jacques Chirac in the second round of the 2002 presidential race. Had she chosen different strategies in the second round, it is entirely conceivable that she could have scored over 40 percent on Sunday, which would have done much to dim Macron’s glow. In that case, the dominant narrative this week might well have been about the continued strength of the worldwide populist wave, and Macron’s inability to eke out more than a narrow victory against an extremist opponent.
How much did the French want someone like Macron as president, as opposed to not wanting someone like Le Pen? The voting on Sunday saw the rate of abstention, and of blank or spoiled ballots, rise significantly from the last presidential election in 2012. Nearly one out of every 10 people who voted refused to mark their ballots for either candidate, clearly indicating that they were willing to show up at the voting booth but not to make a choice between two candidates they saw as unpalatable, and hinting at overall high levels of discontent with the choice being offered. Among the 76 percent of voters who did not support Macron in the first round, it is safe to say that relatively few became passionate Macronistas over the next fortnight, even if they voted for him against Le Pen. (Even in the first round, many voters supported him principally for tactical reasons.)
But elections can change things, and the euphoria surrounding Macron’s impressive margin of victory over the xenophobic, racist, intolerant Le Pen, and his impressive speech at the Louvre, may well have changed the attitude of at least a portion of that 76 percent. When Macron takes office on May 14, he may do so with a much stronger base of support than might have been predicted a few days ago. And this matters all the more because his first task is to transform his electoral movement, En Marche!, into a true political party that can win the parliamentary elections scheduled for next month. This was always going to be a massive challenge for Macron.
En Marche! has an embryonic level of organization at best. Although Fillon’s party, Les Républicains, and the Socialist Party of the outgoing president, François Hollande, may yet collapse as a result of their own poor electoral performances (Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon scored just 6 percent in the first round), they have reserves of personnel and experience that En Marche! cannot match. And Macron has called for half of all En Marche! candidates to be fresh faces without political experience (he has also called for half of them to be women). To get a parliamentary majority, he will need to count on his victory enlisting a new generation of citizens to help him form a party—a difficult task, but one that looks more likely now than it did a few days ago.
In this respect, Macron does have a venerable French political tradition on his side. He is invariably described as a centrist, but Macron’s “centrism” is not primarily a matter of positioning himself between between left and right and trying to find compromises. Some politicians who may have a prominent place in his government—for example, François Bayrou, founder of the Mouvement Démocrate, who likens himself to Tony Blair—do fit this model of centrism. But Bayrou and other such “Third Way” centrists have rarely enjoyed much political success in France.
Macron, on the other hand, belongs to a different “centrist” tradition that extends back through Charles de Gaulle all the way to Napoleon and the last years of the French Revolution. It is a “centrism” that consists less of negotiating between the different points on the political spectrum than of rising above the political fray altogether in the name of rassemblement: bringing the nation together around high ideals.
Most often, this “centrism” has also involved the idea of a powerful executive that recalls, in both its freedom of action and its grandeur, the monarchy of the Old Regime. The fact that Macron chose to give his victory speech at the old royal palace of the Louvre suggests an effort—if perhaps not entirely a conscious one—to associate himself with this legacy.
But even if Macron does manage to put together a genuine popular movement that sweeps to victory in June’s legislative elections, what can he hope to accomplish as president? While France’s economy has been slowly improving, the resentments and frustrations that led more than a third of the electorate to vote for an extreme right-wing racist candidate are not going to disappear from the country anytime soon.
Unemployment (especially among the young) remains stubbornly high. The Europe that Macron praises so lyrically strikes many French voters as an aloof and unresponsive power that has lowered the country’s economic defenses, allowing its industries to flee elsewhere while flooding the labor market with migrants. Like François Hollande and his predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, Macron wants to loosen regulations to allow businesses to hire and fire more freely, with the goal of stimulating enterprise and eventually lowering unemployment. But French workers very understandably see such moves as mostly benefiting businesses while leaving them increasingly at the mercy of the patronat (bosses).
Terrorism also remains a constant threat. The number of alienated French Muslim youth who have embraced radical Islam—while small in relation to the French Muslim population overall—is not insignificant. Moreover, successive governments have so far proven distressingly incapable of dealing with the issue (and banning “burkinis” doesn’t help). The glow around Macron could easily fade as he faces these nearly intractable problems.
For many on the left, the temptation now that the threat of a National Front victory has been vanquished will be to move quickly into determined opposition to the “neoliberal” former banker Macron. While a great many Socialist officials—especially those who already backed him, quietly or publicly, in the first round—have indicated their readiness to join En Marche!, the militant supporters of Mélenchon and Hamon could well come together to form a new left-wing party. Such a party is very unlikely to win a parliamentary majority in June, or anything close to it. If it remains in opposition after the June elections, its function will be either to force Macron to look for allies on the right, turning his government into “Fillon lite,” or to block any legislative achievements at all. And this second scenario, while perhaps preferable to the first, would increase public frustration at the country’s apparently unending political paralysis, perhaps dooming Macron to the massive unpopularity of François Hollande (whose approval ratings have fallen as low as 4 percent), and ultimately strengthening the chances of Le Pen or another extremist to take power in the future.
A better solution may be to try, at least at first, to work with Macron, especially if he does manage to stimulate large-scale public enthusiasm for his movement in the wake of his victory. Macron belonged to the Socialist Party for several years, and on cultural matters, his instincts are those of the left. He strongly supports same-sex marriage and women’s rights (as in his call for “parity” between men and women on his parliamentary slate), and he’s been willing to call France’s colonial ventures in Algeria a crime against humanity.
Macron’s economic program, with its large doses of austerity, tax cuts, and labor “reforms,” brings him much closer to the neoliberalism he is so often accused of embracing, and it could provoke serious social unrest. But despite this, Macron has also spoken of his admiration for Scandinavian social democracy and is motivated by an apparently genuine sense of compassion for the dispossessed of the French economy, even if one might contest some of the policies he thinks would help them.
It is also important to note that, according to the exit polls, a substantial number of Fillon voters ended up siding with Le Pen in the second round. Les Républicains may now move sharply to the right and even ally with Le Pen (who wants to create a new political formation capable of alliances with mainstream forces). Quite possibly a new French right may reconstitute itself along the lines of the Republican Party in the United States and adopt a position of total opposition to Macron in the hopes of causing him to fail and picking up the pieces in the next election. If so, this is all the more reason for the left to consider working with Macron: to push him in the direction of his better angels, to take his rhetoric about rassemblement seriously, and to embrace the window of opportunity that may be opening up for him to effect real change. In that case, the political situation in France over the next few years could resemble that in the United States after Obama’s election in 2008.
However, a strategy of working with Macron might well fail—not least because Macron himself could make it impossible to follow. But if the hopes stirred up by his victory on Sunday are soon dashed—if the idealist rassembleur is quickly dragged down into the muck of political infighting and the country’s political paralysis returns with a vengeance—then the chances for an illiberal candidate to succeed Macron in a few years’ time would become overwhelming.