France: Open and Closed

Commentary | April 24, 2017

It's hard to overestimate the importance of France's presidential election. As many experts have noted, the winner will have an enormous impact on the very form, indeed the existence, of the European Union, the common currency, and the future of European politics.

Sunday's first round has given us clarity on the choices. The final on May 7 will give us a new French President.

Now it seems that Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have made it to the runoff. Already this is historic: for the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic, the traditional left-right parties have been shut out of the final round. Most devastating is the collapse of the Socialists, who drew single digit support, continuing a trend in Europe among social-democratic parties that we've seen not only in Britain and the Netherlands, but indeed throughout the continent. It's not too much to claim that the choice now is not between left and right, but between open and closed: open societies and open markets and open borders versus more limits on civic freedoms, more protectionist economies, limits on immigration. Comfortable welfare-statism is on the outs.

Imagine, then, what has happened in France: working class voters have left the Mitterrand/Marchais bloc, many of them moving to the nationalist positions of Le Pen; conservative voters have splintered from the days of the Chirac coalition, many of them voting for Francois Fillon (who just missed passing Le Pen into second place), others moving further right; those on the hard left voted for Jean-Luc Melenchon (who was not far behind Fillon). Fillon and Socialist Benoit Hamon have already come out in support of Macron in the runoff, making a victory for this most moderate candidate more and more likely. But it's sobering that well over 40 percent of voters voted for the far right, and both Le Pen and Fillon make no secret of their admiration for the Russia of Putin.

And so, due to the structure of French electoral politics, the prohibitive favorite will be Macron, a man committed to the EU, to the common currency, to NATO, and the traditions of the west. And this only because of a few percentage points among voters. Still, we're entitled to ask whether, with the victory of Van der Bellen in Austria, of Rutte in the Netherlands, we've seen the cresting of the populist tide in the west. My answer is: not so fast.

First, we haven't seen the results of the second round yet. Even though the analogy of Le Pen to Brexit or Trump is hardly apt (polls showed Remain and Clinton ahead by 2-3 points, while initial polls show Macron with a 30-point lead over Le Pen in the May 7 final), one never knows.

Second, the underlying dissatisfaction that motivated so many voters to reject traditional candidates remains, and the underlying weaknesses of and challenges to the EU have not gone away.

So instead it may be that we've entered a mature phase of the new politics of the West that emerged last year. These politics challenge the verities of the post-1989 world, especially since Europeans now note that while one used to talk about how Europe would affect the world, one now talks about how the world might affect Europe. In such a situation, even someone like Macron, if he's elected, can't turn back the clock and govern like it's 1999. The new issues, and the new political landscape, will be with us for a long time. But at least in France, fears that these issues would spark an immediate and possible wrenching realignment in international politics and structures do not seem to have been borne out.