The French election was seen as a defeat for far right populism. Professor Amanda Garrett, specialist in minority integration in France, argues Macron’s win was a temporary setback, but the far right’s influence is more long term, and likely to outlast this election result.
As France neared the second round of its presidential elections on May 7, 2017, voters faced a choice between Emmanuel Macron, an investment banker with comparatively little experience as a politician, and the leader of France’s extreme-right National Front, Marine Le Pen. It was a choice between an Independent emerging from the rubble of a crumbling Left and classic populism. In the wake of a momentous Brexit vote in the UK, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, and the rightward movement of countries like Poland and Hungary, there was a valid concern that France could be the next to fall prey to populist appeals.
And yet, it didn’t. With just over 66% of the vote Emmanuel Macron was sworn in as the next President of France. However, even as onlookers let out a collective sigh of relief with Macron’s decisive victory, still many questions remained. In particular, what is the future of populism? Was the transatlantic flirtation with extreme right-wing politics doomed to be a short-lived one?
Certainly prior to Macron’s landslide win, evidence seemed to portend a resurgence (although not necessarily a win) for the far right on both sides of the Atlantic. With increasing segments of the voting population facing poor employment prospects, frustration over immigration and free trade, and fears over the loss of national identity (and policy-making autonomy) to the European Union, the tone of political debate was bound to change. Particularly in Europe where center-left and center-right parties have converged over the decades, public confidence in government’s ability to address these issues was at a low.
So unsurprisingly these anti-globalization and anti-establishment sentiments made almost perfect bedfellows for the political opportunism of existing populist movements. Thanks, in part, to the luck of electoral timing, populism was free to shift from the fringes of politics to the mainstream almost overnight. Pushing platforms of protectionism and xenophobia, as a case in point, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) led the UK unceremoniously out of the European Union and Donald Trump became Leader of the Free World.
Logically speaking many predicted France to follow suit. After all, France harbors all of the necessary socioeconomic and cultural preconditions to sustain a surge in populism – high unemployment (youth unemployment hovers around 25%) and widespread skepticism of open borders for people and goods both within the European Union and beyond. Then the National Front’s Marine Le Pen cleared the hurdle of the presidential election’s first round and advanced to the second round. But the far-right’s political momentum would go no further. Centrist, pragmatic politics had won the day.
Even though France was not the first European nation to turn its back on populist agendas (populism would also fall short in the Netherlands and Austria), as Europe’s second biggest economy, the message was a resounding one. Voters were still desperate for political leadership that would not only be ambitious in changing the status quo, but also promise to do so with stability and competence. Populist parties generally lack none of the former, but tend to fall short on the latter.
However, while Macron’s win may have temporarily kept yet another populist agenda from gaining electoral clout, the setback was just that. Temporary. The factors that have led countries down a road in which populism is competitive to begin with, however, are much more permanent. Populism is not dead, but merely being kept at bay by political pragmatism (in France, at least).
So, in addition to a ray of hope, the French case should also be a chance to pause and reflect on the place that populism occupies in modern politics. Above all, what is clear now is that rather than speaking to the political inclinations of a fringe minority, the appeal of populist ideas has moved to the mainstream.
Of course there is always a segment of society sympathetic to more extreme right-wing and authoritarian sentiments – the resurgence of populism is nothing new – but the size and intensity of the movement ebbs and flows in response to economic and political conditions. The problem now is that unfavorable economic and political conditions have opened a door for populism. The social, cultural, and economic problems that make protectionist, xenophobic, and anti-establishment politics so alluring have not gone away with Le Pen’s defeat. Without some change to these underlying preconditions, the threat of populism’s continued resurgence remains.
This is both good and bad news for those concerned about far-right ideas becoming increasingly permanent fixtures of national political institutions. On the one hand, through thoughtful policy-making governments still have the chance to tackle issues of economic inequality and political frustration that typically motivate the far-right’s constituent base. Indeed, Macron took office by publicly acknowledging the need to address the very problems that sustained support for Le Pen’s campaign. On the other hand, this is an impossibly tall (and idealistic) order.
Can Macron realistically facilitate the political retreat of the far-right, one that will endure past the next presidential elections in 2022? A drastic and swift improvement in the socioeconomic and cultural malaise driving the extreme right is unlikely, but perhaps incremental change may be enough to shift course (of course, failure to manage even minor improvements could just as easily open the door wider for Le Pen). Success will, in part, be determined in France’s upcoming legislative elections in June, where securing support in the National Assembly for Macron’s centrist party En Marche! will be critical. The real test of populism’s durability has yet to come and the eyes of many liberal democracies on both sides of the Atlantic will be closely watching France.
Amanda Garrett is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Dr. Garrett received her Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University in 2013 and worked as a visiting researcher at New York University’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies until joining the faculty in Qatar. She specializes in comparative and international politics, with a focus on immigration and minority integration in advanced democracies. Her current research examines minority political incorporation and urban violence in France and the United Kingdom.