‘If Macron Loses, Putin Wins.’

No matter the outcome of Sunday’s election, the appeal of extremist candidates is worrying for the health of transatlantic liberalism.

An illustration set on a yellow backdrop of Marine Le Pen's photo scribbled over with blue and Emmanuel Macron's photo scribbed over with red, with white scribbles between the two to mimic the French flag
Sylvain Lefevre / Chesnot / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Thomas Chatterton Williams is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race.

In a rematch of the 2017 election, France will decide tomorrow between the erstwhile centrist disrupter Emmanuel Macron and the far-right fixture Marine Le Pen. Although this contest once seemed inevitable, the emergence last fall of the wild-card extreme-right media personage Éric Zemmour—whose campaign outflanked Le Pen’s and threatened to cannibalize it—meant that Le Pen had to struggle just to remain this cycle’s challenger. Even more surprising, in the first round of voting, on April 10, she only squeaked past the extreme-left curmudgeon Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose formidable showing polls had repeatedly failed to anticipate.

Whatever happens tomorrow, then, the story of this election cycle is the appeal of the extremes against Macron, who just a few years ago burst onto the political scene as an Obama-like golden boy. That’s worrying for Macron, of course, and dangerous for the health of transatlantic liberalism more broadly.

“If you put together the far left and right, two-thirds of French voters support an anti-liberal, pro-Putin candidate,” the author and journalist Marc Weitzmann told me. “Given what’s at stake today in Europe, if Macron loses, Putin wins.” This is a dark turn of events indeed, at the very moment France finds itself the de facto head of the European Union and Europe finds itself, post-Brexit and freshly devoid of the steady German leadership for so long embodied by Angela Merkel, confronting on its own soil a Russian menace.

Back in March, Macron’s reassuring statesmanship in the face of the Ukrainian crisis seemed to have secured his reelection. Apparently too busy to campaign and loath to debate while doggedly keeping the lines of communication open with Moscow (and posing for Zelensky-esque photo ops in jeans and hoodies), he quietly put out a letter declaring his candidacy a mere 24 hours before the deadline. His opponents, meanwhile, scrambled to distance themselves from unseemly affiliations with and praise for Vladimir Putin. In the run-up to the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen had flown to Moscow to meet with Putin; three years before that, her party borrowed 9 million euros from a Russian bank. Mélenchon—like Le Pen, a bitter critic of NATO—has controversially advocated “non-alignment” on the global stage. His rivals on the left were quick to accuse him of “indulgence” toward Putin’s regime and even “complicity” in his crimes.

Yet Le Pen’s numbers held as she shrewdly turned her focus to pocketbook issues. She avoided Paris and toured the downwardly mobile rural and postindustrial segments of France, including Macron’s own hometown of Amiens, where her National Rally party has flipped large numbers of voters in former leftwing strongholds to the xenophobic right.

Mélenchon, for his part, condemned the Russian invasion, and continued to reap the benefits of his post-2018 shift in rhetoric about mass migration. During the European crise migratoire of 2015 and 2016, he had argued, echoing Le Pen, in favor of protecting French workers against “social dumping.” But by 2019 he was accusing Donald Trump of racism for thwarting migrants’ ambition to survive. Expected to receive about 15 percent of the vote in the first round at a time when the political center of the country has lurched to the right, he ended up with 22 percent, less than half a million ballots out of second place. He also captured the Muslim vote.

That success can be explained, in part and in hindsight, by Mélenchon’s oratorical skill and a lack of commitment to the polarizing secularism known as laicité, as well as a willingness to loosen a traditionally class-based discourse on the left in favor of one more accommodating to the current dictates of identity. Now whichever way his following breaks—including staying home or casting blank “protest” ballots—will have an enormous impact on the political future of France.

Going into the election, both Le Pen and Macron are courting—or aspiring to offend the least—Mélenchon’s unpredictable base. That left-wing voters would even consider supporting Le Pen (whether directly or through abstention) is a damning indictment, of both the president’s five-year strategy of reactively meeting Le Pen on her own discursive turf and the commitment of large swaths of French society to basic liberal norms.

In chaos, however, there is opportunity. “Mélenchon does not intend to stop at third place,” Le Monde reported on April 19 after the candidate directly appealed to voters to elect him prime minister in the legislative elections to be held this June. “If this cohabitation does not suit the president, he can leave. I will not leave,” Mélenchon warned. He even indicated that he would be open to being Le Pen’s prime minister—a stunning acknowledgment from the ostensible left.

Although, unlike Zemmour, he has not directly encouraged his supporters to vote for Le Pen, his party pointedly released an unofficial poll on its website claiming that more than 60 percent of the people supporting Mélenchon will stay home. A Le Pen victory would mean that Macron’s political future is closed and the fate of his party, La République En Marche!, which destroyed the traditional center-left and center-right parties in 2017, will be insecure. In such a scenario, Mélenchon would be the only viable alternative to the governing regime.

Wednesday’s grueling, at times stupefying, nearly three-hour debate seems unlikely to have altered the basic electoral math. Macron, whose body language betrayed exasperation at even having to entertain Le Pen (Jacques Chirac famously refused to debate her father, Jean-Marie, in 2002), focused on revitalizing French industry and strengthening the European Union in the face of grave threats. Le Pen again cast herself as a populist “obliged to be the spokesperson of the people,” intent on liberating Muslim women from the veil and solving a cost-of-living crisis in the provinces. “My main takeaway from the Mélenchon group is that they hate Macron way more than they hate Le Pen,” Mathieu Lefèvre of More in Common, a think tank studying polarization in Europe and America, told me about the interviews he conducted ahead of the vote. “I worry that the result of the debate and Mélenchon’s calls to ‘elect me prime minister’ will lead to low turnout among his crowd.”

And so Macron, whom the latest polls now grant a more comfortable 10-point lead, is left as the unloved, even despised, yet ultimately indispensable bulwark in the contemporary French—and therefore wider European—landscape against a reckless insularity among both extremes. Older voters seem to grasp this intuitively. “Mr. Macron has baby-boomers to thank for his success,” the Economist noted while observing that without voters over 60, the president wouldn’t have even qualified for the second round. “The extreme left doesn’t seem so threatening to those who do not remember the cold war.”

The conflict in Ukraine was supposed to be a wake-up call—a reminder not only of Le Pen’s prior embrace of Putin, but of the larger reality that elections have consequences, nationalist demagoguery is nothing to toy with, and those deprived of liberal democracy are willing to die trying to access it. The irony—and, depending on tomorrow’s outcome, the tragedy, perhaps—is that while so many French voters have been blinded by personal animus and numbed by domestic haggling, the most potentially destructive stakes of this election remain global in scope.