Before the just-concluded French presidential election, the United States’ National Public Radio (NPR) requested that I give an interview about the outcome. But there was a catch: The interview would take place only if the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen won. It seems that good news, like Le Pen’s defeat, is barely news at all nowadays.
But the truth is that the victory of the pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron is a very big deal. Last year, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU), and the US elected Donald Trump its President, the rise of right-wing populism went from seemingly impossible to seemingly irresistible. And, in many ways, France was primed for a right-wing populist to win power: Beyond having been hit hard by the Eurozone crises of the past decade, it has lately faced a wave of terrorist attacks.
But French voters — including many whose preferred candidate or party didn’t make it to the second round — recognised the perils of letting Le Pen reach the Elysee Palace, and delivered Macron a robust victory. It was a show of maturity and political intelligence, and a lesson to the United Kingdom and the US. (Perhaps that is the part NPR didn’t want to face.)
It helped that, in the second presidential debate, Le Pen destroyed the facade that she had worked so hard to construct. Her push to “de-demonise” the National Front — in 2015, she even kicked her father, Jean-Marie, out of the party he founded — was all an act. She is, and always will be, her father’s daughter.
But the French election played out as it did, to paraphrase the essayist Michel de Montaigne, not just because Le Pen was Le Pen, but also because Macron was Macron. At another time in history, Macron’s youth and independence would have been a major liability. But, in the current environment of mistrust towards the political establishment, Macron offered France the prospect of a kind of renewal.
Of course, the implications of the French election extend far beyond the country’s borders. Begin with the UK, where Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a snap general election next month was intended to strengthen her hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Now she is confronted with the prospect of a reconstituted Franco-German axis — one that would be more balanced, and therefore more stable, than before. Winston Churchill’s political heirs certainly could not root for a candidate who waxes nostalgic about Vichy France. But they are not wrong to worry that the victory of the election’s most pro-European candidate will isolate them further.
In fact, Macron’s victory — which he celebrated to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the European anthem — is likely to invigorate more moderate, pro-European forces across Europe (with the possible exceptions of Hungary and Poland). Macron has proved that optimism, supported by a clear and firm pedagogy, can win an election, even in a Europe that has seemed bound by pessimism and fear. His approach will certainly be reflected in the coming year’s general elections in Germany and Italy.
Beyond transforming the image of France (and right-wing populism) in Europe, Macron’s victory is transforming Europe’s image in the world. Contrary to the claims of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the “old continent” is not in the process of decay; it is still capable of renewal. This might be disappointing for Russia, but for China, Macron’s victory is a positive development. The Chinese do not, after all, like uncertainty, especially when it roils markets. And that is probably what a Le Pen victory would have done.
As for the US, responses to Macron’s victory are probably mixed. For the majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump, it probably inspires a combination of relief and satisfaction. After all, to some extent, Le Pen’s defeat amounts to a rebuke of Trump himself. But there is probably also some envy mixed in: If only the Democrats had a Macron as their candidate, instead of Hillary Clinton, Trump would not be president.
Americans who voted for Trump, for their part, may not be sure what to think. From an ideological standpoint, Macron’s victory is disappointing, but from a geopolitical viewpoint, it’s not such bad news. Indeed, by reinforcing the European pillar of Nato, it will benefit the entire western world. As for Trump — much more a narcissist than an ideologue, who never actually met Le Pen, even as many in his administration feted her — Macron’s victory can be spun in any number of positive ways.
For Macron, the work is just beginning. To deliver the change he has promised and remain a symbol of the world’s progressive hopes, his movement, La Republique En Marche!, will need to secure a majority in next month’s legislative elections. One hopes that French voters will again show self-awareness and wisdom, and deliver him the support he needs in the National Assembly. What is at stake is not the future of a politician or his party, but the destiny of the French Republic — and the future of Europe.
— Project Syndicate, 2017
Dominique Moisi is senior counsellor at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.