A Rebuke of France's Political Establishment

Neither Emmanuel Macron nor Marine Le Pen is from one of the two political movements that have dominated the country for decades.

Charles Platiau / Reuters

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have little in common on the face of it. Macron, who exit polls project as the winner of Sunday’s first round presidential election in France, is a political neophyte. His centrist, globalist, pro-EU policies, are antithetical to the populist movements sweeping the West. Le Pen, who finished second in Sunday’s election, is an embodiment of that movement: Her far-right National Front (FN) has festered on the fringes of French politics for decades. She is against immigration and the EU, and a strong advocate for nationalism and borders.

But what unites Macron and Le Pen, who will face off in a second round on May 7, is that they each represent a backlash against the political movements that have dominated modern France. For the first time in a recent presidential runoff in the country, neither of the two candidates will be from the traditional center-left and center-right movements.

Writing in Project Syndicate, Zaki Laïdi, a professor of international relations at Sciences Po, compares the political moment in France to what existed in 1958 when Charles de Gaulle came to power and set up the Fifth Republic. He points out the conditions that exist today—distrust of elites, fear of globalization, rising economic inequality—combined with a renewed emphasis among voters on national identity, has fostered the rise of Le Pen’s FN, which typically finishes third in the first round of voting. Traditional French parties have suffered: The ruling Socialists, the main center-left party, have been riven by factionalism. The Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, finished dead last among the major contenders—while the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose economic policies resemble Le Pen’s, tied for third place. François Fillon, the candidate of the traditional center-right party, whose early high poll numbers suffered after a political scandal, also finished third.

Polls have shown Le Pen in the lead, or near it, for months. She has taken an unpalatable party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 1972 and turned it into an alternative for some of those in France who are tired of the old left-right divide that has governed the country for decades. Le Pen has channeled the anti-globalization sentiment, large-scale immigration from poorer countries, a massive refugee crisis, and terrorism to improve the FN’s previous best performance, and to repeat her own father’s performance in 2002. (Jean-Marie made it to the second round of the presidential election that year only to lose; polls predict Marine will also lose in the second round.)

The projected first-round results correspond with what polls predicted ahead of the vote. But in another sense, Macron’s victory in the first round should be a surprise. His triumph in the second round, which is widely expected, would be stunning. He represents exactly the same values that voters in the West—following the victories of Brexit and Trump—are supposedly fed up with. He is business-friendly, favors globalization, and believes in allowing in more immigrants. Yet these positions haven’t hurt him as they have hurt politicians elsewhere in the West. “Macron’s great insight, which few initially recognized, was that the right-left divide was blocking progress, and that the presidential election amounted to a golden opportunity to move beyond it, without the help of an organized political movement,” Laïdi wrote in Project Syndicate. “At a time when the French people are increasingly rejecting the traditional party system, Macron’s initial weakness quickly became his strength.”

If Macron does, as polls predict, win the second round, it will undoubtedly be painted as a rejection of populism. But as my colleague Uri Friedman wrote in the aftermath of the Dutch elections, where a far-right candidate performed worse than expected, “the most significant trend in Western democracies at the moment might not be the rise and fall of populist nationalism. Instead, it is arguably the disintegration of political parties. The story here is less about which specific type of politician people want to be represented by than about a crisis of democratic representation altogether—less about the empowerment of populists than about the broader diffusion of political power.” Indeed, the exit polls in the French election show a similar dynamic at work. It’s the type of political fragmentation to be expected in a country where trust in government is low.

“A disaffected and discouraged citizenry isn’t just a boon for populists, who condemn the ‘establishment’ and ease worries about the future with nostalgic appeals to past greatness,” Friedman wrote last week in an article on how populism took root in France. “It also has consequences for left-right politics. If you lack confidence in the government in general, you’re unlikely to distinguish much between left, right, and center. If you doubt that your future is bright, you’re unlikely to be satisfied with the same old ping-ponging policies of the center-right and center-left.”