The outcome of yesterday’s French presidential election is easily explained. In the qualifying round two weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron defeated all the other non–Front National candidates in the competition to be least like Marine Le Pen. And because he was obviously much less like Marine Le Pen than Marine Le Pen herself in yesterday’s final round, he defeated her by roughly two to one.
Indeed, it is looking as if Le Pen underperformed even the low expectations of those who thought she would lose, getting only 34 percent when some observers expected her to break the 40 percent barrier. Michael Barone points out that she lost la France profonde as well as Paris to Macron, winning just two regions outright, and doing relatively well only in areas hit by recession or by high Muslim migration.
Though its size is remarkable, however, Le Pen’s defeat is the opposite of a surprise. It’s long been clear that most French voters would not support Le Pen or the National Front at any price. Earlier polls had shown that every other presidential candidate would defeat her in a run-off. The entire French establishment and all the other parties called for her to be crushed. And she suffered from the standard bias of the media and political elites that the most extravagant charges can be leveled against “right-wing” politicians with no need for evidence or penalty for error.
That said, there were surprises buried — and not far down — in the statistics. No fewer than 12 million voters cast “spoiled” ballots when confronted with these two candidates (some writing rude remarks on the ballot paper, I regret to tell you). If you count those abstentions as votes, they mean that though Macron won two-thirds of the Macron–Le Pen total, he won less than 50 percent of all who went to the polls either to vote or to protest. Other Macron supporters told pollsters they had voted against Le Pen rather than for Macron. And since turnout itself was slightly lower than usual in presidential elections, everything suggests a very high level of disaffection among French voters.
It contrasts oddly with the unqualified expressions of euphoria among European and national leaders welcoming a historic victory for France and Europe with “Ode to Joy” as their anthem. All that seems a little unreal. Indeed, before a single vote had been cast, observers such as Charlie Cooke and Christopher Caldwell pointed to the curious likelihood that a country moving right was about to elect a leftist president and that a nation angry with both the governing Socialists and the establishment was about to choose an énarque graduate of an establishment training ground who was in the Socialist government until yesterday to govern it.
Now it’s happened. So it inevitably seems less odd. But common sense suggests that some serious clashes are about to erupt between Macron’s ideas and political realities and between some of the different ideas wrestling inside for mastery of his mind. He is, for instance, a passionate Europhile who wants to relaunch the European Union. His commitment to the euro goes to the extent of wanting a fiscal government with a single finance minister for the eurozone that would then become a transfer union with “mutualization” of debts. Germany will like almost all of this because it promises to impose fiscal discipline upon otherwise unruly eurozone countries. But the Germans are determined to avert the threat of a transfer union with debt mutualization, which, as they see it, would amount to giving Greece and Italy the keys to the German treasury at the very moment that the U.K. will have opted out of subsidizing Europe in any way. Expect communiqués written in vanishing ink.
Macron is also talking up his intention to reform the over-regulated French economy and dash for prosperity. We’ve heard these plans before — in particular from Jacques Chirac (in his first presidency) and Nicolas Sarkozy. But they were very soon abandoned. They inevitably bump into obstacles such as the labor unions, the entrenched belief in the “French social model,” and not least the chains of an overvalued exchange rate, today’s euro, that makes French industry uncompetitive (and German industry highly competitive).
A restructuring of the euro (probably into a northern and southern one) would seem to be the practical solution to France’s and Europe’s problems here. But Macron is viscerally opposed to that particular reform, and so is Germany. Worse, if the euro were divided, France would probably be compelled by its sense of prestige to remain in the northern euro when its economic interests plainly indicate that it seek the relief and greater competitiveness of a southern euro. All in all, the prospects for Macron’s “pro-market” reforms — which explain why some conservatives and classical liberals support him — look distinctly gloomy. But it was Europhiliac French bureaucrats who designed the euro to be a house with no exits.
That brings us to perhaps the most fateful of Macron’s instincts on policy: his passionate multiculturalism, his post-nationalism, his hostility to “Islamophobia,” and his belief in a liberal migration policy or, in the jargon, “an open society.” He seems to believe in the limitless capacity of France to absorb more migrants and more cultures in a common multiculturalism even to the extreme of saying, “There is no such thing as French culture.” Yet France is at present divided bitterly between the native-born and migrants, facing another surge of lawless migration from the Mediterranean, and disturbed by near-constant acts of murder and terrorism. It is not yet in a state of civil war, but scores of automobiles are burned every night in the major cities, the spread of “no-go areas” continues steadily, and the imposition of Muslim rules on both Muslims and others living in these areas becomes increasingly oppressive. It is hard to see how all this can go right, especially if Macron’s economic reforms don’t produce the prosperity on which any social easement will depend.
Macron may not even have the parliamentary support of a substantial number of MPs. There will be elections for the National Assembly in six weeks, and his new party could win a majority, but if the voters are suffering from buyer’s remorse by then, it might not. The statistics all suggest that, in the American phrase, his support is wide but shallow. Until we know the results, Macron must be considered an apprentice Man of Destiny — and one facing difficulties as harsh and complex as those facing more experienced such figures as de Gaulle and Napoleon.
A more ominous pointer towards the future is also visible in the post-election polls. Macron was elected by the old. Voters over 65, presumably with memories of the Second World War, the colonial wars, and a prosperous postwar France, supported him by margins of 80–20. Marine Le Pen pulled in 44 percent of the vote of 18- to 25-year-olds — the largest share she won from any age group. They are presumably less subject to post-colonial guilt and less willing to yield their interests or compromise their loyalties because of it. So the next five years could well see a series of social crises in which two versions of young France — a multicultural one swollen by migration and a native-nationalist one fed by the arrival of a post-guilt generation — will find themselves on opposite sides of a worsening political divide. Will Marine Le Pen emerge stronger as a result in 2002? Or will the National Front split and merge with post-Gaullists and others on the center-right to form a new party? Or will a political entrepreneur in the Republicans do successfully what François Fillon attempted this time — namely to take his somnolent establishment party to the right and win the kind of socially and nationally conservatives voters in France that Theresa May has won in the U.K?