The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion France chose Emmanuel Macron, but it craves full-fledged populism

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to supporters in Paris following the second round of voting in the French presidential election on April 24. (Nathan Laine/Bloomberg)
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Western elites are breathing a sigh of relief after French President Emmanuel Macron’s landslide victory Sunday over national populist Marine Le Pen. They shouldn’t be so sanguine. A deeper dive into the results shows that France is on the verge of embracing full-fledged populism.

France elects its presidents using a two-round system. All candidates must compete in the first round, and the two with the most votes advance to the second round if no one reaches 50 percent. Macron won only 28 percent in the first round, hardly a ringing endorsement.

That meager achievement looks even worse when assessed against the growing strength of anti-establishment populist candidates. Five candidates — Le Pen, leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and three other minor figures — have run in every election since 2012. All levy strong critiques of France’s role in the European Union, NATO and other international organizations. Their combined share of the first-round vote has risen from 32 percent in 2012 to 47 percent in 2017 to 48 percent this year. Add in the 9 percent that went to far-right journalist Éric Zemmour and the Communist Party candidate, Fabien Roussel, and a total of 57 percent of French voters supported candidates who espouse radical change.

Macron won by 17 points in the second round because left-wingers who backed Mélenchon and others could not stomach Le Pen. This is evident in the results in places such as Seine-St. Denis, a historically working-class area that Mélenchon easily carried in the first round with 49 percent, compared with Macron’s 20 percent and the combined 17 percent for Le Pen and Zemmour. Macron thumped Le Pen in the region on Sunday, however, by a margin of 74 percent to 26 percent. Similar swings occurred in Mélenchon strongholds such as Toulouse and Lille. Macron’s triumph rests on far-left voters who simply found national conservatism more odious than international neoliberalism.

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It’s easy to understand why so many French are dissatisfied. Unemployment, currently at 7.4 percent, has declined only slightly in Macron’s first term. The country’s inflation rate is 4.5 percent, the highest since 1985. It’s no wonder, then, that pre-election polls showed Le Pen winning among lower-income workers with less formal education. Unrest over immigration, the role of Islam in French public life and rising crime adds to the growing discontent.

Macron’s reelection could be the calm before the storm. Life is getting increasingly difficult for many French. Macron’s job, then, is to do what he was unable to do in his first term: jump-start the French economy and reduce the other tensions roiling the public. It’s hard to see how exactly he can do that, especially since one of his signature initiatives is to raise the national retirement age. Other presidents have tried to do that and largely failed, and opposition to the idea is one of the few things people on the left and right agree upon.

June’s legislative elections will be Macron’s first test. The French historically give their presidents a pliant legislature, but it’s not clear whether they will do so again. A pre-election poll found that only 34 percent of French want Macron to have a majority in Parliament. A poll conducted over the past two days found that only 24 percent favor his party, La République En Marche, in the upcoming elections. French legislative elections use a similar two-round system as in the presidential race, meaning Macron’s opponents will be able to team up on his party’s candidates in second-round races. One can imagine an informal anti-Macron pact between the left and the right emerging to hamstring Macron, a development that would force him either to rule by decree or deal with one of the nation’s non-centrist parties to pass legislation.

In other words, France might be only a few years behind Italy, which has also hollowed out its traditional center-left and center-right parties as a result of economic stagnation, immigration and cultural change. In 2008, Italy’s mainstream parties combined to receive more than 80 percent of the vote. That dropped to 57 percent in 2013 and only 37 percent in 2018. Italy heads into another election next year, and polls consistently project a center-right alliance dominated by two right-wing populist parties, Brothers of Italy and Lega, winning between 43 and 45 percent. Barring dramatic changes, the question is whether the next Italian prime minister belongs to a party descended from Mussolini’s Fascists or one that has signed a cooperation pact with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

Voters everywhere want their leaders to deliver peace, prosperity and a society with shared values. Western elites are under siege in many countries because they have consistently failed to deliver the goods. Macron’s victory gives France’s elites what could be their last chance to fulfill expectations. If Macron fails, Louis XV’s famous saying might be reprised: “Après moi, le déluge.”