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Takeaways from the French election

Supporters of far-right leader and French presidential candidate

Supporters of far-right leader and French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen hold flags and a poster as they wait to attend a meeting in Marseille, France, on Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Credit: AP / Michel Euler

For once, the pollsters had it right. In France’s presidential election, the distance between the top contenders was small, but center-left independent Emmanuel Macron came in first, National Front leader Marine Le Pen second. They will move to the second round, which Macron is widely expected to win. Conservative François Fillon (the only representative of a traditional French party) endorsed Macron.

In essence, disrupters on the right and left in France were strong enough to increase divisions within traditional political parties (aided by millions of euros from Russia), but putting together a governing coalition is another matter. Unlike in the United States, where Republicans meekly followed then-candidate Donald Trump, in France the traditional conservative now has sided with the center-left candidate over the proto-fascist; if his voters do the same, there will be a resounding victory for centrism. One wonders what would have happened in the United States if traditional conservatives had united in opposition to the candidate spewing extremism and xenophobia.

Trump’s election in the United States stirred fear in some quarters of a Western populist wave beyond our shores, but his election might be the high-water mark for xenophobic, protectionist and nationalist movements. Since Trump was elected, right-wing candidates have lost in Austria, in local German elections and in the Netherlands. Despite Brexit’s upset win, none of the “Leave” politicians wound up as prime minister; instead, sensible conservative Theresa May, who was with the “Remain” camp, is guiding Britain out of the European Union. Trump, to put it mildly, has not been a shot in the arm to far-right politics — be it in the Netherlands or in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Trump weighed in by tweet to favor Le Pen (as he did against Democrat Jon Ossoff in GA-6); he’ll be sorely disappointed by the final-round results, barring a nearly unimaginable turn of events.

At any rate, France — as well as the European Union and NATO, which only Macron supported — seems to have dodged a bullet. Europe is not quite ready to throw democracy, tolerance and reason out the window. As Jeffrey Gedmin and Joshua Muravchik recently wrote in The Washington Post: “The sky is not falling yet. But were today’s E.U. to break apart, expect a surge of protectionism, illiberal nationalism and anti-American sentiment in pockets across the continent. Count on even greater Russian assertiveness in Europe in backing anti-democratic forces. Moscow is the source of none of these unfortunate trends, but it has shown itself eager to support and promote all of them.”

There is a critical mass — not a plurality (both in the United States and France) — for extreme nationalism in Europe, but the danger is far from over. (In France, the National Front may well win some parliamentary seats.) In France, Le Pen’s popularity among young people, who face an astronomically high unemployment rate, should be a warning sign.

Traditional conservatives singing the praises of undiluted capitalism (Fillon in France, the GOP in the United States) may have a tough time finding an audience. On the right, they have been flanked by xenophobic, anti-free-traders; on the left, they have come up against the promise of government intervention to attend to the needs of those who have not made the transition to a global, high-tech economy.

The best check against far-right demagogues are healthy, functioning Western democracies. Macron, a former Socialist, now favors reforms such as reducing the top marginal tax rate and streamlining the French bureaucracy. “To defend the middle classes is to respond to insecurity,” he said during the campaign. Whether he can blend pro-business reforms while protecting the safety net remains an open question. But he at least is offering something new, forward-looking and responsive to voters’ desire for a more vibrant economy. (It’s noteworthy, for example, that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has gotten comparatively less traction among younger Germans, who enjoy a low rate of unemployment and have benefited from vocational education options, apprenticeships, increased exports and farsighted organized labor. As one report said, “German unions’ willingness to hold down wages led to lower production costs in Germany, allowing the country to export more.”)

Ultimately, Macron’s success and France’s ability to hold off the National Front will depend upon increased opportunity and good governance. Where unemployment, stagnation and corruption sprout, extremism usually takes root.