How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old former economy minister who grew up as the son of two doctors in the provincial backwater of Amiens, will be the next president of France, having won with around 66 percent of the vote. Although he has never held elective office, he defeated the redoubtable Marine Le Pen, the heiress to a populist dynasty founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who defended torture in Algeria, called Nazi gas chambers a mere “detail” of history, and once punched a female Socialist politician in the face.
The Le Pens have adopted Joan of Arc as their hero. Joan, a child of the people who is considered by some the “mother of the French nation,” heard voices that told her to boot foreigners—the English—out of France. The Le Pens hearken to the same voices, although the identity of the foreigner has changed.
In this election, however, it is Macron who appears to have been listening to otherwise unheard voices. While still serving under outgoing President François Hollande, the fledgling economy minister hatched a plan to replace his boss. After he founded a movement called En Marche! (Onward!) in April 2016, advisers warned Hollande that the man whom the president had once described as his spiritual son was preparing to run against him. Yet despite long years as a political insider, Hollande dismissed such rumors.
The young prodigy’s remarkable rise began when he graduated near the top of his class from the highly selective National School of Administration, the nursery of the French elite. This gave him entry into the most prestigious of France’s administrative corps, the Inspectorate General of Finance. He thus began his career already near the top of the ladder. After a short detour into the private sector, where he spent a few years working as an investment banker, Macron returned to government as a senior member of Hollande’s staff. From there he was appointed economy minister, a post from which he resigned in August 2016 to devote himself full-time to running for president.
Macron’s platform combined business-friendly reforms such as labor-market deregulation with promises to invest in green jobs and decrease French dependence on fossil fuels. He favors a Scandinavian-style “flexicurity” model, in which workers are supported while transitioning from jobs in declining sectors to jobs (hopefully) created in rising sectors. Of all the candidates in the race, he was the staunchest defender of the European Union and the most adamant in insisting that French industry must adapt to become more competitive in the globalized economy.
In a period of rebellion against “elites” everywhere, many observers feared that the French would follow the surly majorities that took the United Kingdom out of the European Union and elected Donald Trump as president of the United States. France did not lack for angry voters. Populist insurgencies rose on both the left and right flanks. On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (France Unbowed) movement attracted more than 19 percent of the first-round vote. In the final two weeks before the vote, Mélenchon rose so rapidly that some feared the final runoff could be a contest between left and right extremes. In the end, however, he fell short. And Le Pen, who inherited leadership of the National Front from her father in 2011, did less well than early polls had predicted, scoring just 21.3 percent, well below her polling peak of 28 percent. Macron led the field with a comfortable 24 percent.
This strong first-round finish set the stage for Macron’s success in the runoff. Le Pen read the polls and apparently concluded that although her efforts to “de-demonize” the party by purging it of anti-Semites and neo-Nazis had steadily increased its vote share in successive elections, she could not win the presidency without some bold surprises in the homestretch. Attempting to emulate former President Charles de Gaulle’s claim to rise above party, on April 24, one day after the first-round vote, she abruptly resigned from her presidency of the National Front and named the little-known Jean-François Jalkh to replace her. But he turned out to be a Holocaust denier, reminding voters of the unsavory past she had so assiduously sought to lay to rest.
Compounding her error, Le Pen then flip-flopped on her signature issue: a promise to hold an immediate referendum on French withdrawal from the European Union. Like Trump, she had attracted the support of workers (the National Front now receives more working-class votes than any other party) by promising to erect protectionist barriers in order to restore jobs outsourced to low-wage countries. She was lionized in Macron’s hometown of Amiens when she appeared at a Whirlpool plant, the imminent closure of which will result in several hundred jobs being shipped to Poland. Her promise of a 35 percent tariff on imports from firms that outsourced jobs proved popular among workers, but it is a promise she cannot fulfill as long as France remains in the EU.
Since polls show that approximately 70 percent of the French are wary of leaving the EU, especially since the Brexit vote and Trump’s expressions of hostility toward the EU and NATO, Le Pen apparently concluded that she could not win the presidency without allaying fears of an abrupt Frexit. So she backtracked. Her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen announced on April 30 that instead of holding a referendum on exiting the EU within six months of the election, as originally promised, there would be “a lengthy process,” lasting perhaps “several years,” because the original proposal was neither practical nor legal under existing treaties.
Le Pen also retreated from the second pillar of her economic program: a promise to abandon the euro. She remained opposed to “the single currency,” she said, but saw nothing wrong with a “common currency,” leaving voters scratching their heads as to what she meant.
The last-minute obfuscations raised doubts about her competence—doubts that were compounded by her bizarre, brutally aggressive performance in the final debate of the campaign. Through much of the multi-hour affair, she wore what many observers called a sinister smile, sneering at and mocking her opponent’s challenges to her economic policies and refusing to make the slightest concession to expectations that she might wish to appear “more presidential.” It was a ploy borrowed from Trump’s playbook: rather than engage with her opponent, she mocked his alleged elitism with a display of petulant vulgarity.
It worked for Trump, but not for Le Pen. Postdebate polls showed a sharp bounce for Macron. The French may not like their elites, but they expect a certain decorum from their presidents. At an agricultural fair in Paris on February 2008, then President Nicolas Sarkozy triggered a backlash when he told a heckler to “buzz off.” Le Pen’s crude pugnacity recalled her father’s verbal (and physical) bullying. In the end she frightened more voters with her radicalism than she attracted with her attempt to cast herself as the stalwart defender of “republican values” and “national identity,” which she claimed were under assault from alien elements, especially Muslim immigrants.
The final vote was more a rejection of Le Penism, however, than an affirmation of support for Macron, who now faces the challenge of governing the country without an established party to lend him support in the National Assembly. Legislative elections slated for June will thus determine how strong a hand the new president will have in pushing through the reforms he thinks are necessary but about which many who voted for him remain skeptical.