The first has to do with President Trump's own politics. Well after leading European leaders had already congratulated Macron, Trump issued a tweet hailing the French centrist's success. (On Monday, the White House followed up with a readout of a phone call between the two in which Trump expressed "his desire to work closely" with Macron.)
But, as was obvious to most people who watched Trump during the past year, Macron was never the American president's favored candidate. At various moments, Trump had indicated his support for far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a politician who was "strong" on borders, tough on Islam, and opposed to globalization and free trade — just like him. Some observers believe that the ideology and rhetoric of Stephen K. Bannon, now the White House chief strategist, was directly borrowed from Le Pen, who has spent years advocating an ultra-nationalist, protectionist platform hostile to immigrants and multiculturalism.
Other hard-line Republican politicians even journeyed to France ahead of the election to offer Le Pen public support.
"In France, Trump really went out on a limb, suggesting momentum for a candidate who was ideologically similar to him — very clearly hoping that his brand of nationalism would get a boost in an allied country," wrote my colleague Aaron Blake. He added that Le Pen's loss "suggests the nationalist, anti-Islam rhetoric that populated [Trump's] campaign isn't quite so ascendant across the pond."
That's a debatable assertion. The fact of the matter is that a third of French voters cast their ballot for a candidate whose party is tied to a history of fascism. The disaffection, anger and fear that fuel Le Pen's politics have hardly been dispelled. Le Pen's National Front will be campaigning hard in parliamentary elections next month, while she herself retains hopes of challenging Macron again in the 2022 presidential race.
Macron faces an unenviable task in the months and years ahead, as my colleague Griff Witte put it: "He must figure out how to translate the poetry of a campaign built on borrowing the best ideas from either end of the political spectrum into the prose of governing in a way that doesn’t alienate everyone."
Nevertheless, Le Pen's defeat was the latest sign that there is nothing inexorable about the rise of her — or Trump's — brand of right-wing nationalism. And while analysts banged on and on about the depth of political polarization in France, the election campaign also underscored how the polarization in the United States is all the more virulent.
After all, a wide swath of French political leaders opted to back Macron over Le Pen, siding with the candidate associated with the mainstream over a once-fringe figure surrounded by Holocaust deniers and Vichy apologists. Yet, in the binary American system, supposed moderates and establishment Republicans went along with Trump's undeniably extremist agenda, even when it was set against the neo-liberal centrism promised by Hillary Clinton.
Of course, what's centrist in the United States is very different from what it is in France, a country with a strong welfare state and where the idea of "big government" doesn't carry the same toxic load that it does in the United States.
"In the American context, 'centrism' usually implies a politics of compromise, a balancing act among competing interests and ideologies, an embrace of trade-offs between parties and the messy, sausagemaking aspects of political life," wrote Princeton academic David Bell. "But in France, throughout modern history, centrism has most often stood for a rejection both of ideology and of dealmaking politics."
Macron channeled that kind of "centrist" idealism, which is virtually nonexistent in the United States. But he was also buttressed by a more sober, responsible media at home.
"France does not have an equivalent to the thriving tabloid culture in Britain or the robust right-wing broadcast media in the United States," wrote Rachel Donadio of the New York Times.
When the efforts of Russian hackers and Trump-supporting members of the online alt-right yielded a cache of supposedly compromising Macron-related emails on the eve of the election, the French public and media outlets chose not to give it air time. Because of both propriety and election law, French politicians and pundits did not grandstand on the dubious leaks.
"We don’t have a Fox News in France," Johan Hufnagel, managing editor of the leftist daily Libération, told the Times. "There’s no broadcaster with a wide audience and personalities who build this up and try to use it for their own agendas."
In an interview with The Washington Post, Jerome Fénoglio, editor of Le Monde, said the French media's conduct held lessons for American colleagues, who rushed to reproduce pre-election leaks last year without scrutinizing their origins. "Hiding information is not the same thing as refusing to be manipulated by those who diffuse the information," Fénoglio said.
Of course, this may change. Macron's potentially difficult years in power may stoke further radicalization on both the left and right and see France's divisions grow wider. But for the time being, his victory draws a line in the sand.
"At a minimum, Macron represents a triumph of what in France are known as 'republican values' — the equal value of each individual, free and truthful speech, above all the idea of a just and impartial state," wrote James Traub in Foreign Policy. He concludes: "France has defended its national values in a way that the United States, in electing Donald Trump, failed to do."
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