Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen of the National Front by 66% to 34%, making him the youngest president in French history.
Many were worried about the implications of a Le Pen presidency as the right-wing, pseudo-racist, anti-European populist has called bluntly for an immigration ban, a withdrawal from the euro and EU, the severing of most economic connections with the wider world, and a general break with the whole French system since World War II.
But while there were admittedly a couple of big gulp moments during the campaign, I wasn’t ever really that worried about such an outcome. France’s pro-European instincts are still pretty strong, and the French political center is robust as well. As soon as it became apparent thatthe center-right wasn’t going to go down the rabbit-hole, I was pretty sure that Le Pen didn’t have a serious chance. The bullet would be dodged. Which isn’t the same as me saying that all is good in the state of France.
Just because the center remains strong in the French electorate doesn’t mean it remains strong in the French political system. In the first of France’s presidential election’s two rounds, the two parties that have ruled France since the formation of the Fifth Republic only scraped together 26% of the vote between them. And Marine Le Pen increased her father’s share of the vote – when he made the second round a decade ago – by half.
So should the French be congratulated, even celebrated, for their election results? Sure. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. All the trends in play that enabled the National Front to so hugely improve its vote take remain fully in force, and all will push France in a much darker direction in the months and years to come.
Automation at home and abroad continues to erode the earning power and job prospects of French workers. So long as the global trade system and EU survive, the French system’s lack of competitiveness continues to hollow out the French economy. France’s vulnerability to energy shocks continues to deepen.
Europe’s sovereign debt crisis is loads worse than it was in 2007, and continues to sap economic activity in France’s Spanish and Italian neighbors. Inward immigration from France’s colonial legacies continues to flow as those former colonies face issues of systemic collapse. Germany remains shielded from the worst of most of this, and so long as it is the heart of the EU not just geographically, but also economically, financially and politically it will continue to ascend at France’s expense. France is trapped in a system it cannot control and that system is in terminal decline. I’d be scared and angry too.
And let's not understate the challenge the new president faces. The entirety – yes, the entirety – of the parliament is made up of parties that were just wholly discredited on the national scene. The new president doesn't have a single legislator in office. The comparison is imperfect, but can you imagine if Donald Trump ran on a third-party ticket to become president? How do you think the Democrats and Republicans would treat his priorities when they hold all the legislative cards?
Sure Macron can try to capture the French imagination (and some seats) in the June parliamentary elections, but so too can Le Pen. And now that one-third of the French electorate has broken the seal and voted for the National Front, it is highly likely that Le Pen’s (massively) more organized and institutionalized party will do just as well as Macron’s neophyte on-a-shoestring En Marche. When we get to the next presidential election, France is likely to have a president with few successes, an ossified and discredited center-left and center-right, and a National Front that has racked up dozens of electoral successes in both national and regional bodies.
Doesn’t take a pessimist to guess how that will turn out.