Making sense of Macron

If there was a crumb of comfort from the horror show that was 2016, at least it was predictably unpredictable. Besides terrorist attacks and celebrity deaths, with the exception of the attempted coup in Turkey, the shocks were delivered primarily at the ballot box. There were no sudden stock market crashes or spikes in oil or food prices. (There were certainly currency crashes, but even these were directly linked to predictably unpredictable election outcomes.) To be sure, Brexit and Trump were still historic and unprecedented. But these events — elections — were planned in advance and (despite Trump’s best efforts, when it looked like he’d lose) subject to rules governing their outcome.

I wrote recently about the ‘thinness’ of elections as a form of civic engagement, and how we should explore ways to expand our democratic decision-making to incorporate other forms of participation. But since elections played such a pivotal part in the experience of 2016 — and since, unlike other shocks, they can be anticipated in advance — it seems wise to look ahead to the coming year’s most significant contests.

Though presidential contests in places like Iran and Kenya will be significant stories, perhaps the central question of 2017 will be how central Europe responds to the rise of isolationism and nationalism in Britain and America. France, Germany and the Netherlands — traditional bulwarks of liberal Europe — will all hold national elections, and in each case, parties of the far right pose a real threat.

Legislative elections in Germany and the Netherlands fall later this year, but the race for keys to the Élysée Palace is already at an advanced stage. In the wake of simmering religious tensions, an increased terror threat and an incumbent Socialist Party president Francois Hollande so unpopular that he’s not even running for reelection, conventional wisdom suggests that National Front leader Marine Le Pen should be preparing for power.

The Le Pens — Marine and before that her father Jean-Marie — were a major feature of French federal politics long before the US and the UK’s more recent flirtation with nationalism. French’s two-round presidential system, which pits the top two candidates in a run-off, rewards the cohesive, angry portion of voters that the National Front has long cultivated. The 17% of voters that Le Pen senior won in 2002 was enough to earn a place in the run-off, prior to a landslide defeat by Jacques Chirac. In 2017, though, polls suggest that Marine Le Pen’s firm 25% of support will be enough to win the first round outright, against a fragmented assortment of parties and independent candidates from across the spectrum.

A nationalist, isolationist party winning a plurality of voters in the country that gave the world liberté, égalité, et fraternité would itself be a shock. Perhaps because the Le Pens have been on the scene so long, and expected to do well in the forthcoming election even before Donald Trump was a presidential candidate, the interest and excitement at present is focused on an emerging challenger, Emmanuel Macron. Benefiting from the moribund Socialist party — which recently chose a Corbyn-esque left-winger, Benoit Hamon, as its nominee — and the ongoing financial scandals surrounding the Republican candidate Francois Fillon, Macron has soared to second in the polls, and seems like a good bet to take on Le Pen in May’s run-off.

To say that the election of Macron would be a riposte to the populist excesses of 2016 would be an understatement. A former investment banker — a job which made him a millionaire — Macron served as Minister of Economy in Hollande’s administration, before quitting and launching his own movement, En Marche (which shares his initials) last year. Macron is pro-European at a time of unprecedented isolationism on the continent; an avowed liberal in an era in which France’s Socialist president was forced to declare a state of emergency and a suspension of civil rights; and a fan of free trade and open borders just as these tenets are coming under attack from left and right.

So what explains Macron’s success? In large part, he is succeeding as the support of others falls away. Hamon, the Socialist Party’s candidate, is seeing his vote split between another leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, and disgruntled center-left figures who have defected to Macron. Meanwhile on the right, Francois Fillon has been beset with a series of scandals alleging illicit payments to members of his family, dragging down his vote. And were he to progress to the second round, Macron would benefit from the support of a cross-ideological coalition turning out to block Le Pen — perhaps with more enthusiasm than Fillon’s brand of watered-down nationalism.

To be sure, the results of votes in 2016 were unpredictable even if their timing and terms were well-established. Much may yet change in France as well, in what has already been a rollercoaster ride that has little precedent in modern elections. But for the first time in a long time, it seems as if liberal centrism as represented by Macron may be in the ascendance, with the populist, nationalist forces of Le Pen and her lightweight alternatives in retreat.

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