Who stands in the way of populists? The French case.
On Sunday, the French will have to choose their new President from between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. In the first round, they received 24% and 21.3% of the vote, respectively. It was a crowded field, and two other candidates, the conservative François Fillon (who somewhat resisted an intense smear campaign) and the left-lunatic Jean-Luc Mélenchon, scored around 20% each, too.
Many predict that Macron will win by a landslide in the second round. My gut feeling is that he will win with a smaller margin than expected, as in the first round roughly 45% of the French voted for extreme left- and right-wing parties, which are certainly very different but share a contempt for globalisation and hostility to immigration. Marine Le Pen embodies those sentiments and has proven, more and more, a canny and capable politician. Underestimating her would be a terrible mistake.
A Marine Le Pen victory is seen by many as little short of a calamity: Le Pen openly questions French membership in the Eurozone (though recently she softened her tone) and proposes a blend of new protectionism that would wreck the EU ship altogether. On the top of that, Madame Le Pen leads a xenophobic party, whose roots are in Vichy France. The French right, which still worships the memory of General De Gaulle, has typically a strong anti-fascist bent. But this time at least one gaullist, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, has openly endorsed Le Pen. Dupont-Ainan comes with a valuable 4.70% of the votes which he scored in the first round.
The other candidate, Emmanuel Macron, is at the same time the new face of politics and the favourite son of the establishment. Macron is a former banker and Minister of the Economy under socialist prime minister Manuel Valls and socialist president François Hollande, to whom he is very close. Hollande’s popularity never recovered from a 2013 sex scandal and therefore he didn’t run as the socialist candidate himself. Macron is a dynamic 39 year old man; he runs with a movement he rapidly and successfully set up (this of course raises the issue of whether he’ll be able to secure a parliamentary majority) and yet he is careful to avoid ideological confrontation and bold ideas. I read his book, Revolution, and I can confirm that, as Jonathan Miller brilliantly put it, “his manifesto resembles a box of chocolates from one of those upscale confiseries on the Rue Jacob: full of soft centres”.
Macron cares for fiscal consolidation, and yet he wants to go beyond austerity; he wants to lower administrative burdens and taxes for business, and yet he advocates an industrial policy and states that big public investments (with a five year time horizon, to be sure) are needed; he vouches for lower public spending, but actually proposes to increase the funding of some departments (like education). Some of Macron’s proposals are actually very difficult to understand: putting teachers back at the center of our republican life is an evocative sentence but doesn’t say much. His analysis is filled with what we may consider conventional wisdom, and sometimes the obsessions, and the oddities, of regular readers of the Financial Times, sometimes referred to as “the elites”: from “green energy” onward.
George Will and Ross Douthat have written two op-eds that Macron should himself ponder. The key message is similar, but they take two different roads to get there. Will provides a synthetic sketch of France’s problems, focusing on the economic side; Douthat asks polemically if there is a case for Le Pen, pointing to her competence and ability as a politician but also to the fact she is attempting answers to real problems. Douthat is perhaps a bit too generous to Le Pen (and has a weird comment on the euro as “German imperialism”, which caught John Cochrane’s attention too) but his last lines are spot on. The French
will choose Macron, a callow creature of a failed consensus, over the possibility that the repulsive party’s standard-bearer might be right.
That decision will be understandable. But it’s the kind of choice that has a way of getting offered again and again, until the public finally makes a different one.
What happens if candidates that supposedly should defy populism at the end of the day are unable to bring together a persuasive agenda that is more than platitudes and hand-waiving to interest groups?
For a more hopeful view of Macron, see this article by Guy Sorman, who basically sees him as a classical liberal.