The Good Fight

The Real Lessons of the French Election

Far from a triumph for liberal democracy, the results show just how imperiled it continues to be.

Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Monday.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Fifteen years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, gained 17 percent of the vote in the first round of the French election and unexpectedly advanced to a runoff against Jacques Chirac. The world was aghast. Millions of people came out to the streets to protest Le Pen. All major candidates urged their supporters to vote against him. In the end, Chirac, a deeply unpopular president, won re-election with a margin of more than 60 percent.

Sunday, Le Pen’s daughter Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the Front National, gained 21 percent of the vote in the first round of the French election and advanced to the runoff against Emmanuel Macron. No mass protests against Le Pen are likely to materialize. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the de facto standard-bearer of the French left, is refusing to call on his supporters to vote for Macron. In the end, Macron will likely beat Le Pen. But his margin of victory will be a fraction of that enjoyed by Chirac. And yet, the world is celebrating a grand victory against far-right populism.

Don’t get me wrong: I, too, am relieved at Sunday’s election results. The nightmare scenario of a runoff between Mélenchon and Le Pen did not materialize. The next president of France is likely to be a strong supporter of the European Union and an eloquent defender of multiethnic democracy. In the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump, some feared that 2017 would turn out to be as bitter as 2016. We now know that this is not the case. Unlike the United States, France and Germany likely won’t be led by authoritarian populists in the foreseeable future.

And yet, it is worth pausing to note just how low our standards have sunk. Anything short of outright triumph by the enemies of liberal democracy is now interpreted as a major success. But this response risks lulling us into a new form of the complacency we have only just begun to shake: Instead of recognizing that populists are continuing to grow their bases, we hastily declare victory. After all, they haven’t defeated us yet …

More broadly, this triumphalist narrative is in danger of blinding us to the radical transformation of politics that is taking place right in front of our eyes. One sign of this is the shocking degree to which the populists triumphed among the young Sunday: Among older voters, fewer than 1 in 5 supported Mélenchon or Le Pen. Among younger voters, more than 1 in 2 did. This suggests that we may have learned the wrong lesson from Trump’s relative lack of support among young Americans: It didn’t show that the young aren’t open to populism, but rather that Trump is not especially attractive to the young.

Another sign of the radical transformation of Western politics is the rapid decline of establishment parties. In the 1960s, Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan made a striking observation: The party systems of most democracies in North America and Western Europe seemed to have “frozen.” While the government changed hands from time to time, the main participants in the political system remained the same.

Over the last years, as populist parties celebrated unprecedented successes across the world, I pointed out that the party system was rapidly thawing. In countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece, parties that cumulatively attracted about 4 in 5 votes a decade earlier were winning the allegiance of less than half the electorate. If the party system has long been thawing, it is now reaching boiling point.

For a long time, the proximate cause of this transformation was the slow, agonizing death of social democracy. The dominant electoral force in European politics as late as the turn of the 21st century, it has of late been in critical condition across the continent. In Greece, Spain, and the Netherlands, social democratic parties have suffered heavy losses in recent elections. In Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, they are on life support. Sunday’s results added another striking data point: Benoît Hamon, the official candidate of the Parti Socialiste, got a pitiful 6 percent of the vote. Little noted by commentators, the dominant political manifestation of the democratic left seems to be leaving the stage of history.

The demise of the establishment parties doesn’t stop there. Rather, the French election suggests that the same rot that has long eaten away at center-left parties may now be befalling center-right parties as well. With the exception of 2002, the runoffs for the French elections have always pitted representatives of the major center-left party against representatives of the major center-right party. This time, by contrast, neither the major party of the center-left nor the major party of the center-right managed to place one of its candidates in the final round.

Three years ago, Macron was completely unknown. A year ago, he had not yet founded the political movement that will likely carry him all the way to the Élysée Palace. When he boasted of “changing the face of French political life” in his victory speech, he was not exaggerating. But what will French—and indeed Western—politics look like after the transformation?

According to a number of analysts, a new political cleavage is coming to define our politics. The battles of the future will, in this view, not be fought between leftists and rightists or liberals and conservatives. Rather, they will pit the advocates of an open society against the partisans of a closed society and nationalists who see the world as a threat against globalists who make it their home.

It would be difficult to dream up two candidates who better personify this divide than Macron and Le Pen. Macron, after all, is a proud internationalist who defends the benefits of globalization. Le Pen is a fierce nationalist who rails against immigrants, capitalists, and the European Union. “The divide is no longer between the left and the right,” Le Pen herself claimed in a recent campaign speech, “but between patriots and globalists.”

If this really is the choice we face, I know which side I am on. To build a decent society, we need to accept people of all religions and ethnicities as true compatriots. To solve challenges like climate change, we need to deepen international cooperation. And to sustain a vibrant economy, we need to harness the power of globalization.

And yet, I wonder whether defenders of an open society should concede the terms of debate quite so easily. For one, a healthy democracy is one in which people on both sides of the main political divide can occasionally win office without destroying the political system. But if all future elections are between the likes of Macron and Le Pen, the enemies of the open society will occasionally win. And the consequences of losing elections to enemies of the open society can, as we are now seeing from Turkey to Hungary, be disastrous.

For another, advocates of an open society may blind themselves to the real shortcomings of the status quo if they grow too comfortable with the globalist label. While they should be unabashed in their defense of international cooperation and the benefits of cross-border trade, they should also recognize that the current system has to change radically in order to benefit the bulk of the population. And while they should wholeheartedly reject the ethnically charged nationalism of Trump and Le Pen, they must not vacate the field of patriotism—lest they allow democracy’s enemies to define its meaning.

Despite his caricatured portrayal as the embodiment of a globalist elite, Macron appears to understand this last point reasonably well. Instead of celebrating globalization without reservations in his victory speech, he promised to use its benefits to “help those who have less, who are more in need.” And instead of juxtaposing nationalists and globalists, he defended a proud patriotism: “I want,” he vowed Sunday, “to be the president for all patriots faced with the menace of nationalism.”

Even after Sunday’s results, liberal democracy remains under threat throughout Western Europe and North America. This is not the time for premature triumphalism. But by the same token, we should not fall prey to defeatism: From Paris to Washington, democracy’s defenders are putting up a valiant fight.