Opponents of virulent nationalist populism were no doubt relieved to see that Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in the recent second round of the French presidential election. Articles abound regarding the triumph of the left over fascism and a host of other dark political ills, a blow to Trump and his ilk and a setback for the continued populist fragmentation of the European Union.
That’s nice, isn’t it?
Well… let’s call it a start. For one thing, France still has its legislative elections in June – Macron doesn’t actually know the shape of the legislature he’ll need to work with yet. His mandate, which generated a nice bounce for the Euro, no doubt extends to being a frontline warrior for the continued stability of the Eurozone, at the potential expense of those the EU might want to send a message to.
For another, Macron, not unlike would-be American counterpart Hillary Clinton, isn’t very many people’s first choice for the nation’s top job. Instead, a good deal of his support appears to have come from people who detested the other choices enough to hold their nose and vote Macron. What precisely his core principles are, how one might classify his political leanings, these were facts made rather forcibly secondary by the fact that Marine Le Pen is an unpalatable thought.
Mr. Macron is a self-described independent, a former economics minister under his ill-fated predecessor Francois Hollande who has a dream of shaking up the French labor market and creating a more business-friendly environment as he works to bring jobs to his country. He’s tremendously pro-EU and comes into the office with pre-curdled relations with Russia. He’s also going to be the young face of either France’s revitalization or Europe’s out-of-touch and blinkered elites. Can’t wait to see which way that one swings.
I’d like to walk the line of cautious optimism on Mr. Macron; he represents the very high-profile defeat of a toxic and pernicious ideology advocated by a cynical and power-hungry politician and her unpleasant fringe faction. However, the simple fact is that Front National put its candidate in the presidential runoff for a second time. Marine Le Pen may not have made it much of a contest by objective standards, but 35% is more than double the margin of her father’s contest with Jacques Chirac. A poll conducted this past December suggests that Front National is the most popular political party among 18-34 year olds in France.
Such a proportion speaks to a level of discontent that’s growing rather than fading away. Mr. Macron’s challenge, then, is not to capture that portion of the vote, but rather to work so that the prevailing ideologies jousting at the lists of French democracy have something of substance to debate, different visions of a brighter future instead of a debate over whether or not to embrace a tenuous darkness. The defeat of Le Pen represents less a victory than it does holding off a loss for liberal democracy. All of France’s political parties owe it to their constituents to offer something more. Let us hope Mr. Macron is up to the task.