On Sunday, France elected a 39-year-old man married to his high school drama teacher who was running for president as an independent candidate. But, it was not so much the election of Emmanuel Macron — an establishment candidate cast as a political outsider — as it was the entire election cycle that threw a wrench in French politics.
Likewise, while Macron’s defeat of nationalist Marine Le Pen in the presidential runoff marked a big win for Brussels, the French election also indicates the European Union will continue to face existential threats.
Macron was painted by major western media as a “maverick centrist outsider,” but he was arguably the consummate insider candidate. Prior to running for president, Macron attended the elite civil service institution Ecole nationale d’administration; he worked as an investment banker for the Rothschild Group; he served as French minister of the economy; he reportedly attended the elite Bilderberg Group meeting; and he was backed by the western political and media establishment.
Yet, had Macron not formally cut his ties with the Socialist Party and run as an independent, he likely would not have fared as he did. In this election cycle, for the first time in the history of the modern French republic, no candidate from either of the two major parties advanced to the presidential runoff.
Outgoing President Francois Hollande, who is widely viewed in France as a disgraced leader, opted not to run for reelection. Benoit Hamon, the Socialist candidate replacing Hollande, received just 6.36 percent of the vote in the first round and finished in a distant fifth place.
Republican candidate and former French prime minister Francois Fillon was an early favorite to win the presidency. However, a scandal surrounding allegations that Fillon gave taxpayer money to his family rocked his candidacy. Fillon finished third in the first round of voting.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, a more ideological socialist who left France’s main left-leaning party prior to Macron’s departure, received nearly 20 percent of the vote in the first round. Melenchon, who picked up an endorsement from the French Communist Party, argued for a 100 percent tax on income above 400,000 euros.
During the runoff vote, campaign stickers for Melenchon, not Macron, could be seen glued to numerous walls and street poles in Paris neighborhoods, as well as inside metro stations. The day following Macron’s victory, a thousand or more demonstrators with similarly leftist views marched through Paris protesting Macron and chanting “anti-capitalism.”
French voters united behind Macron largely to defeat Le Pen and the “fear” and “hate” she is accused of spewing. Following Sunday’s vote, the French pollster Ipsos said 43 percent of Macron voters supported him in order to prevent Le Pen from winning the presidency. Additionally, a record number of French voters abstained from voting or cast blank or spoiled ballots.
Despite losing in a landslide, Le Pen’s tally of about 34 percent of the vote in the presidential runoff is a noteworthy achievement. It was just the second time a National Front candidate advanced to the runoff. And this time, Le Pen fared much better than her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who received less than 18 percent of the vote in the 2002 presidential runoff.
In recent years, the National Front has benefitted from high-profile terrorism in France, unrest in immigrant-dominated areas and deindustrialization in France’s smaller cities. If more of the same — terrorism, unpopular economic policies and failure to integrate Muslim communities into French society — occurs under Macron, the pendulum will continue to swing toward a nationalist getting elected president. Le Pen could even come roaring back in the 2022 election.
With the 2017 presidential election complete, France’s political party system is in disarray. Macron and his En Marche movement are expected to woo defectors from the top two parties in the lead-up to parliamentary elections, which are just about a month away. As with voters, politicians will likely line up behind Macron out of convenience. However, that does not ensure Macron will succeed in obtaining a parliamentary majority or getting his agenda through the legislature. Also, Macron’s proposed economic reforms, particularly his plan to loosen labor laws so that France becomes more business-friendly, will clearly upset many French citizens.
On Sunday night, Macron walked out to the stage in front of the pyramid outside the Louvre with the Anthem of Europe playing and members of the crowd waving EU flags. EU supporters worldwide rejoiced as Macron’s victory staved off possible referenda on French membership in the eurozone and the EU had Le Pen won. Macron’s win also halted the momentum nationalist and populist forces built with the Brexit vote and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.
But the mere fact that a Frexit was being discussed as legitimate possibility is a sign of the times. France, unlike the United Kingdom, is a founding member of the EU and a member of both the eurozone and Schengen Area. To many observers, a Frexit would mean the imminent collapse of the EU.
While the French clearly remain more supportive of the EU than the British, the issues driving voters to support Le Pen are driving anti-EU sentiments as well. In the first round of this year’s presidential election, about 46 percent of the votes cast went to eurosceptic candidates — Le Pen, Melenchon and a couple others.
And if problems occurring in France persist across the EU, the union can unravel. In Paris, residents generally tolerate living under a state of emergency with massive police and military presence on the streets and bag checks like in other countries rocked by terrorism. In general, Eastern Europeans do not have similar tolerance for mass migration and terrorism. If EU policies lead to the formation of unintegrated communities in Central and Eastern Europe, as has occurred in Western and Northern Europe, backlash against the EU will spike.
Additionally, Southern Europe continues to grapple with austerity, and Brussels keeps placing bandaids on the problem, i.e. bailouts rather than adopting a permanent fix to the structural failures of the eurozone. Though France, at least for now, averted a eurozone referendum, it might just be a matter of time before a country votes on potentially leaving Europe’s currency union.
In Paris and in Brussels, the political establishment is still in control. But sentiments in France and in Europe are shifting, and more populist waves are lurking in the distance.