Moderation in French election may check rising populism

While we at Vassar and across the country are still reeling from the outcomes of a populist right-wing backlash against the “political elite” and the status quo, tunnel vision is blinding us to an even harsher reality. While we lick our wounds, we ignore the fact that we may be but a foreshock in a much larger political earthquake that is gradually afflicting nations across the globe.

In the timeline of this recent populist wave, Britain actually came first. Brexit was something of the inaugural event, followed by the resignation of the center-right David Cameron. Cracks had been forming before this both in Britain as early as 2013 with the increasing strength of the far-right UKIP, and in the US as early as 2010 with the rise of the tea party and then with the increasing popularity of Breitbart, Milo Yiannopoulos and the alt right. However, Brexit was the first prominent example that a substantial amount of the population shared, or was at least amenable to, some of the nationalist and anti-globalist sentiment of far-right populists. Then, with the rise of Theresa May, a soft eurosceptic whose positions often hover near the rightmost fringes of the Conservative party, the surge was cemented in Britain. In mainland Europe, many nations have fared similarly. In Germany, Alternative for Germany is polling in a strong third place in the mid teens, a marked increase from their 4.7 percent in the last election. Even with third place, they might very well gain a substantial amount of seats in the Bundestag (Reuters, “Germany’s Social Democrats overtake Merkel’s conservatives in poll,” 2.23.2017). However, there is reason to believe they may do even better, as they won 25 percent of the vote in German state elections in March 2016. Part of their rise has been attributed to attacks connected to Muslim immigrants.

In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik party controls 24 seats in Parliament and has done increasingly better in each successive election. In Austria, a candidate from the anti-immigrant Freedom Party won 49.7 percent of the vote in the Presidential election, losing ever so narrowly to the Green Party candidate. Even in Sweden, hailed as a bastion of social democracy and progressiveness, the Sweden Democrats, a party with “roots in the white supremacist movement,” has 49 seats in Parliament, making them the third largest party (“Europe’s Rising Far Right,” New York Times, 12.4.2016).

Then finally we come to the most surprising case of all: France. France is arguably a socialist country at heart, with strong social welfare programs and robust labor laws. Yet, with the tanked popularity of the largest left-wing party, Parti Socialiste, and the shaky campaign and less than ideal nominee from Les Republicains, the largest rightwing party (for now), the door has been opened for a new party: Front National.

Front National is a party defined by its opposition to immigration, its hardline stance on leaving the European Union, it’s repeated scapegoating of the French Muslim community and its protectionist trade stances. If that’s not enough to make you hate them, their founder and onetime Presidential runner-up, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been charged and convicted not only for anti-Islamic rhetoric, but for anti-Semitic remarks. He has sometimes been accused of having “Nazi sympathies,” and he once got in hot water for referring to the Holocaust as a “detail” of history (“Jean-Marie Le Pen fined again,” The Guardian, 04.06.2016).

Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter and successor, has had a very easy time getting ahead in this election. Unlike Donald Trump, she didn’t need to take to Twitter or fling brash insults to take her center-right opponent down: he did it all by himself. For a while, Francois Fillon from Les Republicains was leading in the polls. However, following allegations that “Fillon’s Welsh-born wife, Penelope, and two of his five children were paid €900,000 of public money for work they did not do,” Fillon fell from his frontrunner status (“François Fillon sinks in polls after ‘Penelopegate’ scandal,” The Gaurdian, 02.04.2017). In fact, Fillon is so unpopular in France right now that recently “Fillon’s aides used an umbrella to shield him from eggs thrown by protesters” (France’s Macron ahead in polls, Fillon faces angry protesters, Reuters, 3.25.2017). This massive fall paved the way for Le Pen to take the lead.

When 39-year-old former economic minister Emmanuel Macron announced his independent bid for the French presidency on Nov. 16, 2016 (a week after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the Presidential election), he promised “a ‘democratic revolution,’ vowing to move the country away from what he called an obsolete and clan-based political system” (An Outsider’s Bid for the French Presidency, The Atlantic, 11.16.2016). Instead of coming in from the fringes, Macron is running from the center, and it’s working.

Macron, a long time political independent, served in the cabinet of Socialist President Francois Hollande before resigning to start his own centrist party, “En Marche!” which translates to “On the Move.” Macron “has billed himself as a radical centrist…at a time when the political center seems in full retreat” (The Washington Post, “The dapper Frenchman running for president as the best bet against the far right,” 02.18.2017).

Macron has taken positions all over the political spectrum from attacking the 35 hour work week, a central tenet of the Socialist platform, to denouncing French colonialism, a denunciation which was attacked by those on the right. He is also in favor of welfare, but as a former investment banker and based on his actions during tenure as the economy minister he is considered very pro-business. This is in sharp contrast with Le Pen who paints Macron “as defender of globalization while she’s the one offering protection to the people” (“Macron and Le Pen Spar, Anticipating French Election Runoff,” Bloomberg, 03.27.2017). Now, thanks to the decline in popularity of the Parti Socialiste, its left-wing candidate Benoît Hamon is floundering, and “has slid 4.5 points since the beginning of February” (“France’sMacron seen defeating Le Pen, Hamon losing support,” Reuters, 3.17.2017). In fact, as of Mar. 19, Hamon is trailing far-left Jean Luc Mélenchon, a trotskyite who has promised to “redistribute wealth through taxation,” and “leave NATO” (“Meet the radical outsider for the French presidency,” Independent, 03.19.2017). Because of this deficit in the center-left, Macron has found himself as Le Pen’s main challenger.

So, with Macron and Le Pen neck and neck at the top, Fillon in a nosedive and Hamon currently staving off statistical irrelevance, it’s a showdown between the center and the fringe. As of today, Macron and Le Pen are climatically tied at 25.3 percent. Each French elections thankfully work in a runoff system. Under this system, unless a candidate wins a majority (50+ percent) on the first ballot, the top two vote getters (usually consisting of about six to eight major candidates) go on to a second round of voting. At this pivotal stage Macron is projected, according to recent polling data, to defeat Le Pen with 62 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 38 percent: a landslide (“France’s Macron seen defeating Le Pen, Hamon losing support,” Reuters, 3.17.2017).

Now, while it is easy to mistrust polling data after the disappointing and surprising result of the 2016 U.S. election, I will remind you of two things; firstly, national polls were very close and the actual result fell comfortably within the margin of error (Real Clear Politics projected Hillary to win the popular vote by a 3.2% margin, and she won it by a 2.1% margin). It was, in fact, state polls which were slightly more off. Secondly, no state polls were off by more than about 6 or 7 percent. If the French polls were off by this much, Macron would still win handily. It would take a cataclysmic scandal to topple Macron’s lead, and even then he could still pull off a slight win over the polarizing Le Pen.

So, now you must be asking why this is relevant to you. Trust me, it is.

If Emmanuel Macron defeats Marine Le Pen, as he likely will, it will serve as an example of how to defeat this surge of right wing populism gripping nations across the world including our own. What he is doing is using some of the same tactics of the far right (not including xenophobia or the scapegoating of an entire race of religion), but he is using them against the far right. Macron, like Trump, Sanders and even Le Pen, has decried the status quo and said he will not govern with a “business as usual” attitude. He has, like our populist friends, promised to revitalize government and work for the people to come up with real solutions. This is what Hillary Clinton and many Democrats (and Republicans) failed to do this election cycle: modernize and adapt to the new electorate. Finally, Macron has shown us that there is still a place for moderate politics and politicians. Today, a moderate politician, not a far-right or far-left one, would be a political rarity and a significant change. So, if we really want to make America great, perhaps instead of moving to the radical left, it’s time to move to the radical center.

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