Has Macron Quelled the Far Right, or Just Held Them at Bay?
The polls were wrong again. For once, though, they overestimated right-wing populism. Centrist Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency with an unexpected 65% of the vote, leaving the far right’s Marine Le Pen trailing with 34%. Macron earned almost twice as many votes, and more people abstained than chose Le Pen. You could even use the ‘L’ word - landslide.
After the painful results of 2016, though, liberals and lefties shouldn’t be too quick to embrace this as a straightforward triumph. Many were invigorated by Macron’s dynamic ascent, but many others weren’t. This is a measured victory. Pundits can’t sit back in their armchairs, content in the renewed success of liberal centrism, just yet.
Let’s take the positives. A former Socialist Party minister who left to found his own En Marche! movement, Macron managed to win without the backing of either major party, tapping into anti-establishment sentiment without veering off to the right. In fact, he managed to win on an overtly liberal platform. He was explicitly pro-globalisation, pro-immigration and pro-EU. His campaign was optimistic, yet realistic. In short, Macron re-invigorated – resuscitated, even – Third Way liberalism.
These are all things that we were told couldn’t happen anymore. In their darkest moments, some wondered if the tide of right-wing populism - which was expressed most forcefully with Brexit and Trump, but circled around numerous Western democracies - was unstoppable. The very things Macron stands for were said to be electoral anathema.
Already there is speculation surrounding a second Le Pen presidential bid in 2022
This time, though, they weren’t. Still, many who supported leftist candidates Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Melenchon couldn’t fully embrace Macron. A former investment banker, Macron is a proud free marketeer who advocates economic deregulation. He also plans to trim public spending and introduce tax cuts, specifically slashing corporation tax from 33% to 25%. Many, then, voted whilst holding their noses, seeing Macron as a lesser evil.
It’s worth remembering why people became disaffected with liberal centrism in the first place. Take Blair - like Macron, he was a charismatic figure who sat to the right of his party. His New Labour said the right things socially, but didn’t do enough to offset the effects of deindustrialisation and globalisation. After their living standards either plateaued or, post-2008, plummeted, voters became easy prey to nationalist insurgents who promised their lives would finally improve if only they left this institution or shunned that minority.
Macron should be wary of similar sentiments. They will linger, ready to snap up voters should his promising programme start to feel like ‘more of the same’. Already there is speculation surrounding a second Le Pen presidential bid in 2022. A mediocre Macron tenure would only fuel this.
progressives also need to offer a convincing vision, unapologetic commitment to their ideals
It’s easy, after any election, to overestimate how far-reaching its results are. Rejoicing over Macron’s success, like despairing over Trump’s, is jumping the gun. Trump supporters might convince themselves that the world is rallying to their worldview, but his dismal poll ratings – not to mention the fact that his entire Presidency resulted from the quirks of an archaic voting system – suggest otherwise. Trump has more citizens who voted against than for him; Macron might not face such hostility, but he does have 10m Le Pen voters who won’t be talked down easily, plus numerous Hamon and Melenchon supporters waiting for him to stumble. In 2017’s divided democracies one person might win the presidency, but rarely can they claim to represent swathes of their electorate.
So while Macron’s vision won out on Sunday, the matter is far from settled. Like it or not, nationalism is having a moment. It will continue to rear its head for some time - what matters is how it’s countered. Norbert Hofer in Austria, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and now Le Pen all earned significant support. Perhaps the fallout from Brexit and Trump tarnished their appeal; Macron was also on higher alert for the fake news and cyber-attacks that Hillary Clinton couldn’t have seen coming.
Nevertheless, progressives also need to offer a convincing vision, unapologetic commitment to their ideals and the prospect of genuine change to succeed. Macron managed this in his campaign. He must now put it into practice – and other leaders must follow suit – if they’re to quell voters’ worst instincts, rather than just holding them at bay.
About the author
Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.
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