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The French election rejected the far right, but to what avail?

May. 15, 2017
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On May 7, Emmanuel Macron overwhelmingly won the French presidential election over Front National candidate Marine Le Pen. Though polls projected Marine Le Pen to get just above 40% of the national vote, on election day she lost by a 2-1 margin. In one fell swoop, the populace soundly rejected the rising political tide of “Trumpism” and its various international spin-offs--but does this guarantee that the future of France will be any more stable? 

It’s worth noting that voter turnout was sharply down from prior elections, meaning much of the country abstained from supporting either candidate. So though the election was substantial win for Macron, his backing is not nearly as extensive as the margin implies.  Still, it seems a majority of French voters understood what was at stake if a far-right populist party won this election. Between Mélenchon’s endorsement of Macron and widespread concern about Le Pen’s euroskepticism (not to mention her failure to articulate her platform), the French had plenty of reasons to choose Macron over Le Pen--but the nail in the coffin might have been her political likeness to Donald Trump. Since the embarrassing consequences of Trump’s election on U.S. politics have made themselves known, the failures of his administration thus far have had a negative effect on right-wing populism in Europe. If anything, the mutual admiration between Trump and Le Pen probably rendered her less appealing to French voters. 

That’s not to say things in France are rosy: although a majority of French voters rejected withdrawal from the European Union, the stigmatization of immigrants, and an open embrace of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, discontent with the French political establishment continues to grow. The country still faces high unemployment as well as concerns about Muslim immigration and globalization. These roots of discontent that gave Le Pen such a strong backing have not disappeared with Macron’s victory.  

Judging by the questions of sovereignty and identity that dominated the election, France faces a problem far greater than slow growth or high unemployment. There is a widespread sense among the French people that they lack control over their futures--and dismissing this fear as just the “modern condition” doesn’t provide a concrete solution to this sense of confusion experienced by the majority of people. France, once one of the greatest world powers, has lost its position as an economic and cultural center of the world.

Most fundamental to this election was the desire of French citizens to reestablish their country as a progressive and forward-thinking place, and ultimately an assertion that France can choose its future without resorting to right-wing politics. Many people who voted for Macron on Sunday recognized his flaws: the Macron vote came largely from the French people’s anti-Le Pen sentiment rather than a genuine desire to see Macron hold office. Despite his lukewarm reception, Macron achieved victory thanks to the nation’s wholesale rejection of the xenophobia, racism, and economic policy that defines the far right today. 

Going forward, Macron will struggle to act on his platform. He does not have a parliamentary majority that supports him, so the next two months will be a period of uncertainty for the country until legislative elections in June. Yet if Macron can find a way to respond to France’s concerns, his presidency may well begin a new era for the country. By voting for Macron, France asserted to the world where they stand on the growing division between left- and right-wing political groups--and the country has reminded us that it has not forgotten its origins of progressivism and intellectualism.