The anti-immigrant right is closer to gaining power than any point since the end of World War II. Marine Le Pen has single handedly taken the National Front party from the dark caverns of French politics to government control. This accomplishment, however, has not been rewarded. Virtually all of her major opponents in the 11 person race have called for her defeat. As a consequence, a virtual unknown centrist and pro-European Union pol who served as the erstwhile minister of the economy, Emmanuel Macron, will be the next president.
Although Macron is lackluster, even applause lines in his speeches draw a ho-hum response, he too is part of a political convulsion that has effectively shattered the French political establishment; on the left, the Socialists, and on the right, the Conservatives, are mired in defeat, pushed aside by anger over the economy and national security. France is in the European doldrums, a nation with limited growth and saddled with regulations.
What has likely secured Macron’s victory is the fear of the far right alliance represented by Ms. Le Pen. In every French town I visited recently pictures of the eleven candidates were on display. It is instructive that in almost every instance the word “fascist” was written across the face of Le Pen. The French do not forget, but what they remember are the words of the father, not the daughter.
Ms. Le Pen organized her campaign around the repudiation of racist, and anti-Semitic views and even repudiation of her father. But French voters remain unconvinced. Many in France are ready to break with the European Union and according to French polls, much of Le Pen’s appeal is based on French sovereignty. However, this sentiment was not enough to overcome the legacy of the National Front. As Socialist party candidate Benoit Hamon noted, “There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the Republic.” Once characterized as an enemy rather than a rival, politics enters the realm of personal destruction.
One might contend that Le Pen performed better today than in 2012, but still not good enough to get elected. My suspicion is that the National Front will attempt a populist gamble of the Trump-like variety in the next election with sharp ideological distinctions on economic protectionism and immigration. Since Macron is unknown and derided as a candidate of the “banks,” he might be vulnerable. However, one election is over and another is about to begin. It is too soon to predict and at the same time interesting to explore various scenarios. France may not be ready for extremes, but in decimating the established political structure did so in any case.
A Europe dependent on the Union is in distress. The French vote offered a reprieve; yet this is only temporary. Another Brexit on the continent and the French may bolt the Union. Then what? France cannot go it alone unless the economy is given a shot of financial adrenalin. The migrant population is rising and virtually unassimilable. Muslim extremists populate every major city. Anti-Semitism is on the rise. The French take their politics very seriously, but the parties of the past are no longer a guide to the future and fear has insinuated itself into a people proud and independent. This is not a healthy brew for either France or the continent.
What the French are witnessing is the dismemberment of political tradition in favor of the unknown. This is in keeping with French history; but a hiccup in national politics often leads to a convulsion in future elections. Macron’s victory is a stop-gap measure. It merely suggests change is in the air, but the National Front is not the answer. What that answer might be will be found in the future of French parties, jockeying to see who can capture the populist sentiments sweeping across Europe.