French voters rejected the political mainstream in the first round of their presidential election, held last weekend. Emmanuel Macron, a political neophyte who is running from the center, and the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, will square off in the runoff ballot on May 7. While Macron is favored to prevail in next month’s vote, that outcome is, in the current political environment, by no means assured. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic about his chances, not least of which are general opposition to Le Pen and the seeming ceiling on support for her nationalist, revolutionary positions.
Eleven candidates contested Sunday’s vote, a crowded field that many feared would so divide the mainstream votes that it would propel extremist candidates into the runoff. While polls had shown a solid core of support for Le Pen, a number large enough to get her into the second round, recent surveys has also revealed a surge for the far-left candidate. By the time the polls closed on Sunday night, however, Macron had taken a largest share of the vote — around 24 percent — and Le Pen had performed as expected, coming in second with a little more than 21 percent.
The results are a rejection of the political mainstream in France. The May ballot will mark the first time in the modern French republic that no major party is represented in a presidential election. That outcome is the result of several distinct problems. First, the Socialists were hobbled by an incumbent president from their own party, Francois Holland, whose performance has been appalling. Second, the center-right Republicain party candidate, ex-Prime Minister Francois Fillon, has been plagued by scandal throughout the campaign and never regained his balance after the first allegations of corruption and nepotism were aired.
Macron, a former investment banker who served as economy minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Manuel Valls from 2014-2016, is a telegenic 39-year-old who has tapped the same vein of dissatisfaction with the political mainstream as has Le Pen. He offers a more respectable face while rejecting the established parties. He is an optimist, as he noted in his victory speech Sunday night when he said, “The challenge from tonight is not to go vote against anyone. The challenge is to decide to completely break with the system that has been unable to address the problems of our country for more than 30 years.”
Le Pen reached similar conclusions in her victory speech, noting that “It is time to free French people from arrogant elites” and putting herself forward as “the people’s candidate.” Here, however, she and Macron part ways.
Macron considers himself pro-European and has “proudly embraced an unpopular European Union.” He backs German leader Angela Merkel, supports an open-door policy toward immigrants and refugees, and promotes tolerance toward immigrants and Muslims. An economic liberal — in the classic sense of the word — he believes in free markets and is disdainful of big deficits. He has also preached unity and patriotism, a concept that he opposed to nationalism — a rebuke of Le Pen that was implied but never made explicit.
Le Pen, by contrast, is an ardent and avowed nationalist, who opposes the European project and wants to withdraw from the eurozone. As she charged in her victory speech, “wild globalization puts our civilization at risk.” She added, “Either we continue to disintegrate without any borders, without any controls, unfair international competition, mass immigration and the free circulation of terrorists, or you choose France with borders.”
As soon as the results were clear, the mainstream candidates rallied around Macron. The Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon, and the current prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, called on their supporters to back Macron in the runoff. Fillon did too, urging his backers to reject the extremism of the National Front and warned that a Le Pen government “would lead our country to bankruptcy and Europe into chaos.”
This coming together is one reason to breathe a bit easier about the results of the runoff. Another is the fact that the National Front has been here before: Former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, (Marine Le Pen’s father, whom she kicked out of the party for having racist views) made it to the second round in 2002, when he ran against then-incumbent Jacques Chirac. This history helps put the current showing in perspective: Marine Le Pen’s vote count was just 3.5 percentage points higher than that which she received in 2012 and 4.5 percentage points more than her father got in 1997. In short, there is little reason to believe that there is some nationalist resurgence in France to make this election especially worrisome.
This trajectory is especially comforting given the terror attack in Paris just days before the vote and the long-standing Russian campaign to influence the ballot. Polls for the runoff — taken before the Sunday vote — show Macron winning a commanding victory, and experts have reason to believe that those results are accurate. Of course, they may prove mistaken again, but a rejection of mainstream political parties does not appear to equate with rejecting the animating ideas of contemporary France. It is the messenger, not the message.