Emmanuel Macron, the next president of France, campaigned on a slogan of “Together, France!” And why not? He is a sunny centrist who attracted votes from the left and the right to decisively defeat the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen on Sunday. The center seems not only to have held, but to have swelled.
But Macron’s victory could further fracture French politics rather than bridge the country’s political divisions, illustrating a challenge confronting many democracies at the moment, especially in Europe: A disenchanted public has blown up the political establishment, but it’s difficult to then fashion a well-functioning government out of the pieces. This can produce more disillusionment with politics, not less.
For signs of trouble ahead, consider the fact that a full quarter of the French electorate didn’t cast a ballot in this weekend’s runoff presidential election—one of the highest abstention rates in the history of France’s Fifth Republic, which was established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. French voters are so disillusioned with their political leaders that, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the runoff didn’t feature a representative from the main parties of the left and right. Whether that’s a response to the government’s failure to boost a stagnant economy, secure the nation from ISIS-inspired terrorism, or assimilate immigrants and address the downsides of globalization, the French consistently express low levels of trust in government. In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, a survey found that French voters are more polarized than the citizens of other European countries, with 20 percent describing themselves as politically extreme (compared with 7 percent in the EU as a whole) and 36 percent identifying as centrist (compared with 62 percent in the EU). So much for togetherness.