A Macron Victory Isn’t Enough

The French president may well win reelection, but the forces propelling the far right are nevertheless strengthening.

A stencil drawing of Marine Le Pen in the colors of the French flag
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

We live in a time of constant upheaval and infuriating inertia. Existential threats to Western democracy abound, but nothing seems to change. With new ideas and technologies transforming the ways we live and work, much of the public seems impatient, urging on change, while the rest demands control and protection. Amid such feverish division, elections morph from battles of ideas to totemic fights for a nation’s soul. We have already seen such contests play out in the United States and Britain. Now it is France’s turn.

On Sunday, voters there will go to the polls to choose the country’s next president. On the ballot are the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, who is promising managerial reforms at home and the reinvigoration of Europe beyond France’s borders, and the far-right challenger, Marine Le Pen, who proposes a nationalistic revolution, both domestic and foreign. In this way, the country appears an image in miniature of the wider world—divided and angry, fearful and on edge. Yet France’s election reflects Europe and the West in another way too: the relentless rise of the nationalist right, fueled by causes emanating from far beyond each nation’s borders.

At first glance, all of the scenarios look grim. A Le Pen victory would bring to power a far-right leader who is committed to unpicking some of the most foundational principles of the European Union, undermining it from within—a hyper-powerful Viktor Orbán with nuclear weapons and a Gallic grudge. Even if Macron wins, the respite for liberals and centrists might be brief; analysts are fearful of a backlash among those who feel disenfranchised by a system that has made them choose between a continuity they loathe and the hard right they loathe even more. Such a backlash could play out in a number of ways. First, in Macron’s party not getting a majority in June’s parliamentary elections, which would potentially lead to the kind of gridlock that bedeviled American politics in the last years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Second, in street violence and protests of the sort that dogged Macron’s first term. Or, finally, in victory for one of the political extremes in France’s 2027 presidential elections, when Macron would not be able to stand, having served the maximum two terms.

Among the problems is that Macron’s initial success, in 2017, seems to have created the conditions for the extremes to thrive. He burst out of Fran​​çois Hollande’s Socialist government to create his own party, winning the presidency as an insurgent centrist vowing to reinvigorate France and its place in Europe and the world. In doing so, however, Macron destroyed France’s two traditional parties on the center-right and the center-left without, it seems, creating a viable force that is more than a vehicle for his own advancement. And over the course of his presidency, he has been seen by many as an arrogant president of the rich, loathed as an emblem of an out-of-touch elite.

Opposition, therefore, has coalesced at the extremes, in the guise of Le Pen and the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who makes Bernie Sanders seem positively Clintonian), both of whom are eurosceptic and anti-globalization. Macron’s fate, then, like some Greek tragedy, could be to create the conditions for the very nationalist revolution he believed he alone had the power to stop.

The French philosopher Montesquieu once wrote that history was governed not by chance, but by underlying causes. If one lost battle could bring a state to ruin, he argued, “some general cause made it necessary for that state to perish from a single battle.” The point is that we should look beyond particular events to spot the general trend. This is now the third presidential election in 20 years in France that has been turned into an apparent threat to the liberal order. A Macron victory alone will not be enough to stop this shift. The far-right (and far-left) threat to France—and by extension to Europe and the West—will linger far beyond any potential second term for Macron.

The trend is already quite clear. In 2002, French voters were so shocked that the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen had reached the presidential runoff that 82.2 percent voted against him. In 2017, Jean-Marie’s daughter Marine reached the runoff and scored 33.9 percent against Macron. This year, polling suggests she will receive somewhere in the region of 45 percent of the vote.

In the British and American popular imagination, all of this only serves to confirm the seemingly permanent conviction that, in France, disaster is always only one election cycle away, with the country paying the price for a model that is too rigid, too elitist, and too small-c conservative to avoid the reckoning that is coming. Yet the truth is that the reckoning never quite arrives, and the country actually seems to sustain itself perfectly well, maintaining a standard of living as good as anywhere on Earth and often far better than in many parts of Britain and the United States. And, as of today, Macron remains the overwhelming favorite to secure a second term, avoiding the fate of Hillary Clinton and David Cameron, who failed to control the nationalist backlash in their own countries.

If Macron wins, it does not mean all is well for France or the EU, but nor does it mean that all is lost. A Macron victory would be a reflection of France just as much as Le Pen closing in on him would be. The divisions and anger in France do not reveal just a particular trend within France, but a more general one within the West. If France is now regularly suffering through existential elections, so too are the U.S., Britain, and others. In 2014, Britain held a referendum on Scottish independence; in 2016, a referendum on EU membership; and in 2017 and 2019, general elections in which a far-left, anti-NATO candidate was the leader of the principal opposition party. As for the U.S., we all know what might happen in 2024.

One of the big themes of France’s election is the rising cost of living—the same pressure currently working its way through the politics of every other country in Europe and North America. In addition to this, there are the questions of immigration, multiculturalism, globalization, and le wokisme that are also top of the agenda in Britain, the U.S., and elsewhere. France’s former ambassador to Washington, Gérard Araud, recently noted that this presidential campaign proves that France is “facing the same deep political, social and cultural crisis [as] most western democracies.”

The sense of anxiety that grips the public imagination in France, Britain, and the U.S. today reminds me of another period of turmoil and change following what many saw as a golden age of stability and order. Edwardian Britain is often portrayed as a period of early-20th-century civility before the cataclysm of world war. And yet, in reality, it was a time of profound technological change, feverish ideological division, new ideas, and fierce resistance—the time of the suffragettes and Irish rebellion, high pride in the empire and fierce opposition to it. In his book The Edwardians, the writer J. B. Priestley describes it as “a time when a lot of people are trying to cling to the past while many others are trying to hurry themselves and everybody else into a future of their own devising.” Sounds familiar. And like today, it was an era when the past was already gone and the future was turning out to be nothing like how it had been imagined.

The systems we have today are once again struggling to contain these competing urges, which are reacting to the changes in the world around them. The great beauty of democracies is that they adapt to the needs of their societies, but there seems to be something stuck about our democracies as the world transforms itself nonetheless.

The reality is that systems that are unable to change to reflect the shifting demands of the public are vulnerable to revolutionary discontent. The French system, endowed with an extraordinarily powerful center, is specifically designed to avoid such threats to public order. Yet this very centralization leaves little space for those who feel disenfranchised by the system. The Fifth Republic was created by Charles de Gaulle in 1958 to correct the perceived flaws of the Fourth Republic, which he saw as too riven by party factionalism to deal with the crisis in Algeria. Yet it is easy to forget that de Gaulle resigned the presidency a decade later, after losing control of the 1968 riots in Paris—an almost revolutionary moment of insurrection.

Given the pressure on Western democracies, we should not be overly surprised that the public in France is once again finding its own particular ways to make its displeasure known, whether through the yellow-vest street protests or extreme parties on the right and left. But nor should we think that this challenge is particular to France.

The challenge in France, as in the rest of the Western world, is similar to that of the Edwardians before the collapse of their world in that cataclysm of the Western Front, as well as that faced by de Gaulle half a century later: to reconcile the extremes into something new and not simply to try to protect the old world that is going. An Emmanuel Macron victory—reassuring though it may be for the liberal order—will not be enough to accomplish that alone, just as Joe Biden’s was not enough in the U.S. The system itself needs to show that it can meet voters’ discontent.