The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Macron may have won comfortably. But this is no time to let down our guard.

French President Emmanuel Macron waves 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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In the end, it was not even that close.

French President Emmanuel Macron defeated right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen with about 59 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 41 percent. He outpaced polls, moving steadily into a commanding lead after the first round of voting. While Le Pen improved on her showing in the 2017 election by seven points, Macron’s victory remains impressive.

The Post reports:

“The result is very disappointing for [Le Pen],” said Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the University of Nice. “She ended up very far from power.”
Especially while a war rages in Ukraine that has united European leaders to an unusual degree, a Le Pen win would have sent a shock wave through NATO and imperiled the flow of French weaponry that has quietly flowed to Kyiv. . . .
On the streets of Paris, many on Sunday night appeared relieved that a far-right victory had been averted.

Macron was able to consolidate voters who picked other candidates in the first round of voting, demonstrating that a center-left to center-right coalition can be more than enough to halt a far-right candidate whose appeal is limited to more rural and religious voters (in particular those who responded to Le Pen’s anti-Muslim rhetoric).

It is easy for skeptics to proclaim Le Pen “won” simply by increasing her share of the vote. Certainly, they might also point out that a deeply discontented faction of the country is apparently not all that distressed by Le Pen’s past affection for Russian dictator and war criminal Vladimir Putin. But that fails to appreciate the challenge all Western democratic leaders — including Macron — must overcome to govern.

A center-left leader can be a champion of tolerance, a force to fight climate change and an advocate for an agenda that a majority of voters favor. But they must do so while facing deep divisions between urban and rural populations, between religious and secular voters and between the well-educated and less-educated. That makes it virtually impossible for competent, well-intentioned leaders to fend off constant criticism from a 24/7 media or to withstand fierce opposing factions and cynical voters.

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An American president who won with 59 percent of the vote, which few think is possible given our own toxic politics, would be a political colossus. That result in France contains several lessons for U.S. media and politicians.

First, a politician who considers it their job to solve problems, as opposed to channeling anger and fanning cultural resentment, will rarely receive credit for achieving half or even three-quarters of a loaf. No matter how well the president helps the country recover from the recession, how many jobs are created on their watch or how effective an international leader they become, anything less than perfect will be met with unforgiving criticism. The temptation to paint a president as a loser is overwhelming for allies who are disappointed with the results. This is made worse in a media environment that thrives on conflict and a political environment in which the opposition party is unwilling to give credit for any achievement. Therefore, one can expect few, if any constructive problem-solvers on the center left enjoying high approval ratings.

Nevertheless, center-left leaders can still be successful. A politician who polls in the low 40s, as Macron and President Biden do, might pull together a commanding victory if the alternative is a right-wing, unhinged, grievance-mongering opponent. The French are not particularly enamored with Macron, but given the binary choice between him and Le Pen, it was an easy call for most French voters.

Lastly, while hard-left party leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon did not endorse Macron outright, Macron easily lined up center-right, green and socialist parties immediately after the first round. If democratic governments are going to hold off the onslaught from authoritarian, nationalist challengers, they must enlist the widest coalition possible.

That means those factions must curb their disappointment and form a national front against the far right. In the United States, a left-wing figure such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) does the cause of democracy no favors by suggesting he would run for president if Biden, who has said he will seek reelection, bows out. Self-promotion is inconsistent with the sort of cross-ideological and cross-party alliance democracy needs to survive.

In sum, the key to winning for center-left problem-solvers is to make elections about a choice between democracy and authoritarianism; between free markets and crony capitalism (or revenge capitalism); and between freedom and Christian nationalism. If Biden — like Macron — is going to hold the right-wing, reactionary and delusional GOP at bay, he must do a much better job explaining what the voters’ options are. They must understand what they stand to lose by ceding power to right-wing nationalists who deplore pluralism and remain intolerant of dissent.