The French Election Is Macron's to Lose

Yet it has already been a marked success for Le Pen and her strategy.

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

PARIS—Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old centrist and ex-banker with a friendly lisp, who has improbably succeeded in casting a program of modest and highly technical economic reforms as a rousing project of French and European renewal, is France's presumptive next president. He will face Marine Le Pen, the 48-year-old leader of the far-right National Front, whose program of nativist populism would see France exit the European Union and all but halt immigration, in the final round of the country's presidential elections two weeks from now. But it is, by near-universal agreement, entirely Macron’s race to lose. The polls, which quite accurately projected his first-round win, have him besting Le Pen in the second round by at least 20 percent, and perhaps much more. The great wave of reactionary anger said to be cresting over Europe seems to have arrived about knee high in France.

Neither candidate hails from one of France's two major parties, however, and if the first-round vote may be said to signify anything at all, it is surely a certain exasperation with the country's traditional political class. "Le dégagisme"— roughly, "throw-the-bums-out-ism"—was widely viewed to be the dominant theme of this year's campaign. Both Macron and Le Pen declared themselves “anti-system” candidates, as did eight of the nine others who ran; the only candidate to eschew this rhetoric, Benoît Hamon of the Socialist Party, which is currently in power, won just 6 percent of the vote.

François Fillon, the candidate of the Republicans, the major party of the right, finished third, with 20 percent of the vote, in a race that just a few months ago had seemed an easy win for him. But Fillon was pursued by the scandal known as “Penelope-gate,” in which he was accused of embezzling about 1 million euros in public funds through no-show jobs for his wife and children; given that he had presented himself as a man of distinct moral rectitude, his candidacy never recovered. Never before have modern France’s two major parties both failed to advance a candidate to the second round of a presidential election, and a candidate of one of those parties has indeed always won. Sunday’s results may herald the decomposition of the two parties, and a thoroughgoing reorganization of the French political landscape. (Legislative elections in June will largely determine this.)

“We have changed the face of politics in our country!” Macron declared in a post-result address, delivered with the strangely robotic diction that he apparently deems presidential. It was an apt formulation. Macron is indeed a new face, and an unusually youthful one, but his profile is scarcely that of an outsider. He was educated at Sciences Po, the Parisian establishment where the country’s soon-to-be elite first inherits its destiny, and then at the École Nationale d’Administration, the institution tasked with training the country’s small corps of top civil servants. He served as a close advisor to President François Hollande, the most unpopular head of state in the history of modern France, before becoming his minister of the economy. Still, technocrat though he is, Macron broke with recent tradition by founding his own, unaffiliated political movement, En Marche! ("Onward!"); by pushing Anglo-American-style entrepreneurship as the country’s economic future; and by promoting economic and social liberalism side by side. His candidacy was backed by officials of the traditional parties of both the left and the right. He won about 24 percent of the first-round vote, with particular success in urban centers and, if pre-vote polling may be trusted as a guide, among educated professionals.

The French like to say that, in their two-stage election process, the country chooses in the first round, while in the second it eliminates. It is unlikely that Macron will be able to rally more than half of French voters to his political vision, but there seems to be little doubt that a majority of the electorate can be counted upon to vote against Le Pen. In their concession speeches, Hamon, of the Socialist Party, and Fillon, of the Republicans, both urged their supporters to vote to keep her out of power. In 2002, when Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, was a presidential finalist, the French turned out in droves; his opponent, the unpopular incumbent Jacques Chirac, won with over 80 percent of the vote.

Le Pen is not at risk of losing so badly. Fillon ran in part as an intransigent defender of a French “identity” allegedly menaced by immigration and an expansionist Islam, and Le Pen may pick up those of his supporters who were most attracted to this message. On the far left, she may also draw from the Euro-skeptical electorate of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who finished just behind Fillon, with 19 percent. (Mélenchon, a churlish and self-satisfied ex-Trotskyist, said he would endorse neither of the two top candidates.) Le Pen is furthermore a public speaker of considerable talent, and a debater with a rare instinct for detecting and exploiting her opponent’s evasions and contradictions. Macron will presumably survive their upcoming debate, but perhaps not unscathed. And for the next two weeks, Le Pen will be presenting him, as she did in her speech Sunday night, as the “heir of François Hollande,” one of the “arrogant elites” from whom she means to “free the French people.” If the results of the first round are any indication, such indictments may resonate more broadly than they have in past years.

Whatever the final result, it must be said that the election has already been a marked success for Le Pen, her party and the strategy of dédiabolisation, or "de-demonization," that she has championed. She won approximately 7.7 million votes in the first round, for slightly more than 21 percent of the total, with particular success in rural areas and among the less-educated. Never has the Front National taken so many votes, in any election; Le Pen surpassed her last presidential score, in 2012, by more than 1 million. The party's growing electoral influence has been the major political phenomenon of the past several years, with disruptive consequences for both the traditional left and right. In an effort to counter the Front National, the right has hardened its stances on security, immigration and identity; the left has seen large numbers of working-class voters abandon it for the far-right. In power or not, Le Pen is everyone's preoccupation.