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.