Don't expect the populist tide to recede, however.
The two top finishers in the first round election for the French presidency faced each other again in the presidential runoff on May 7th. Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European Union former banker and member of the current Socialist French President Francois Hollande’s cabinet, handily beat the insurgent anti-globalist candidate, Marine Le Pen. Mr. Macron’s margin of victory was approximately 30 percent. According to initial estimates, he garnered between 65.5 percent and 66.1 percent of the votes cast. Ms. Le Pen captured between 33.9 percent and 34.5 percent of the vote. Globalists in Europe and the United States are breathing a sigh in relief. They are convinced that Ms. Le Pen’s landslide defeat has definitively rolled back the rising tide of populism and nationalism evidenced by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory last year. They may be reading too much into these election results, however.
Mr. Macron did so well in part because of the candidate he was running against. Ms. Le Pen ran ahead of the rest of the field in the first round of the election two weeks ago, but never managed to broaden her appeal much beyond her core constituency.
Ms. Le Pen entered the race bearing the heavy baggage of her party’s anti-Semitic, xenophobic past. She tried mightily to move the National Front party she led beyond the racist, Holocaust-denying message her father had enunciated as the party’s founder. Her platform focused instead on a France-first, economic populist message that caught on with some voters disaffected with the political establishment. However, Ms. Le Pen could not entirely shake the negative image many French voters still held of the National Front party.
Ms. Le Pen also ran a flawed campaign. She squandered the opportunity afforded by the face-to-face debate with Mr. Macron to expand her base with a positive message, in counterpoint to Mr. Macron’s proposed globalist programs. Instead, she chose to go relentlessly negative. Polls taken after the debate showed her as the clear loser. “The debate was fatal for her,” an operator of a popular pro-Le Pen twitter account remarked.
However, although Mr. Macron soundly beat his populist challenger, the underlying populist anger is still there, in France and in Europe as a whole. The anger is fed by a combination of economic dislocation and anti-immigrant sentiment.
France is presently an economic basket case. Hollande’s socialist policies have failed to expand employment opportunities, particularly for young people looking for work. Guy Millière, a senior fellow of the Gatestone Institute and a professor at the University of Paris, noted in a recent articlethat “France’s unemployment rate remains above 10%. Nine million people are living below the poverty line --14% of the population. Economic growth is stagnant.” For youth seeking to enter the labor force, the unemployment rate is close to 25 percent. Hollande’s incredibly low approval ratings, resulting in part from France’s dire economic condition, no doubt led to his decision not to seek another term himself.
Mr. Macron, like Ms. Le Pen, is a disrupter of the status quo in at least one sense. He represents a break with the two dominant parties on the left and the right. As a Vox analysis pointed out, “For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, which dates to 1958, the president will come from neither the center-right nor center-left. Indeed, the candidates of the traditional center-right and center-left failed to make it into the second round.”
Mr. Macron ran as the head of what he called the En Marche movement ("On the Move!"). “Everyone will ask if it’s a program of the left or of the right,” Mr. Macron declared. “I want it to be a program that brings France into the 21st century. It’s essential to liberate sectors of our economy, but at same time to provide protections for all.”
Mr. Macron had helped to design and implement the economic policies pursued by President Hollande while serving as President Hollande’s senior economic adviser and then his Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs. President Hollande endorsed Mr. Macron. Some of Mr. Macron’s speeches borrowed material from speeches President Hollande himself had made during his own presidential campaign in 2012. Yet Mr. Macron, 39, has managed to project a hopeful image of an action-oriented change presidency. He has said he wants to “transform” France “at its deepest level.” This kind of rhetoric is not so dissimilar to what Barack Obama had said back in 2008 to sell his vision of hope and change that would fundamentally transform America. No wonder Obama decided to publicly endorse Mr. Macron in the runoff election. And just like Obama, Mr. Macron became the darling of the mainstream media.
In substance, Mr. Macron’s own economic program consists of a somewhat right-of-center, pro-growth grab bag of payroll and corporate tax cuts, more fiscal discipline, some labor deregulation, and reforms in education. He does not intend to touch the third rail issues of retirement age or the size of pensions, however.
Mr. Macron would like to lure innovative firms to set up shop in France, hoping to expand job opportunities and increase social mobility. “We will make France a land of experimentation, where it will be simpler and faster to experiment with new industrial solutions,” he declared on his website. And he favors a dose of deregulation of some businesses, particularly in the services sector, such as hair dressers and driving schools that have suffered under the heavy hand of regulation.
Mr. Macron is fully committed to globalism. He sees France’s continued integration in the European Union as critical to France’s economic well-being, even though France has been suffering its economic woes while having remained a full partner in the EU. He favors large government "investments” to “accelerate our initiatives in order to deliver in line with COP21 [the Paris summit on climate change].” He has even encouraged U.S. scientists bothered by the Trump administration’s skepticism regarding climate change concerns to “please come to France. You are welcome. It is your nation.”
Mr. Macron’s stated economic policies may do little to bring down France’s unemployment rate, while angering trade union members and others on the left who feel he is an elitist willing to sell out workers and the poor. Ms. Le Pen had tried to pin the out of touch elitist label on Mr. Macron, with no success. However, a more effective messenger with less baggage may succeed in the next presidential election if France’s economic situation does not drastically improve before then. Moreover, Mr. Macron may not be able to enact the changes he is seeking in economic policies without a cooperative legislature. Legislative elections next month will answer whether, without an established party of his own, Mr. Macron will be able to assemble a working majority to back his policies.
On issues relating to security, Mr. Macron would tinker around the edges. He has said he would beef up spending on the military to 2 percent of the gross domestic product, hire more police and revamp France’s domestic anti-terrorism intelligence unit.
However, Mr. Macron is not willing to tackle head-on the underlying problem of radical Islamists – homegrown and foreign jihadists – that is growing like a cancer in France. He said that the “imponderable threat” of terrorism “will be a fact of daily life in the coming years.”
In fact, Mr. Macron may make the “imponderable threat” even worse with his open borders approach. Mr. Macron favors an "open and welcoming" France, which would admit to France even more immigrants from troubled areas in the Arab world and Africa.
“The duty of Europe is to offer asylum to those who are persecuted and seek its protection,” Mr. Macron declared. “But the European Union cannot accept on its soil all those who are in search of a better life. In this context, France must take its fair share in the reception of refugees.”
Mr. Macron also favors a multiculturalist France, which does not require assimilation of immigrants from alien cultures into a single French culture. In fact, he has said, “Il n'y a pas de culture française” (French culture does not exist).
In sum, Mr. Macron represents the continuity of globalist policies that have contributed to the rise of anti-immigrant nationalism and economic populism. Marine Le Pen’s loss in the runoff election, after having come in second in the first round, should not distract from the fact that she raised valid issues of concern to many French voters, such as the effect of globalism on job prospects and the impact of open borders on safety and French national identity. Just below the surface, there is palpable anger within France. Such anger could erupt in angry protests and even riots at any time, while also heavily influencing the shape of France’s political future.