Marine Le Pen and her anti-E.U., pro-Russia, nativist philosophy were defeated decisively in French presidential elections, by an even bigger margin than pollsters estimated. Pre-election polling set the margin of victory for winner Emmanuel Macron at 60-40 percent; with 98 percent of the vote reporting, Macron led Le Pen 65.8 to 34.2 percent, more than a 30 percent margin.
The Washington Post reported:
“The result brought to a close a tumultuous and polarized campaign that defied prediction at nearly every turn, although not at the end. Pre-election polls had forecast a sizable Macron victory, and he delivered - winning some 65 percent of the vote.
“The landslide was just the latest blow in 2017 for far-right movements that had seemed to be on the march last year but have suffered a series of setbacks in recent months across continental Europe.
“In a pointed endorsement of European unity, Macron strode to the stage at his raucous victory party in the grand central courtyard of Paris’s Louvre Museum on Sunday night to the strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the European Union’s anthem.”
Critical to his victory seemed to be an appeal to the true values of French democracy without relying on a defense of the status quo. (“[B]y bucking France’s traditional parties and launching his own movement — En Marche, or Onward — Macron managed to cast himself as the outsider the country needs. And by unapologetically embracing the European Union, immigration and the multicultural tableau of modern France, he positioned himself as the optimistic and progressive antidote to the dark and reactionary vision of Le Pen’s National Front.”)
President Donald Trump had made clear he favored Le Pen, whose victory would have served presidential adviser Stephen Bannon’s vision of an international, populist, right-wing movement characterized by xenophobia, protectionism and hysterical accusations against governing “elites.” At least some French voters wanted to avoid making the “same mistake” as Americans had, in their estimation, in electing an authoritarian nationalist.
In his victory speech Macron vowed that “France will be France again,” a repudiation of the populists’ accusation that defenders of modernity and democratic traditions are somehow captives of impersonal globalism, traitors to their country. “We are the heirs of a great history and the great humanist message for the world,” Macron said. “We must carry them into the future and give them a new lifeblood.” He spoke specifically of the need to defend the “spirit of the Enlightenment,” an appeal to truth and reason.
Macron’s win follows that of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who defeated right-wing populist Geert Wilders. It came on the same day as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives declared victory in local elections in Schleswig-Holstein. “Regardless of the outcome of local coalition talks, the result was a damper on the mood among Social Democrats and unexpected good news for Merkel,” the Associated Press reported. “Polls had suggested a neck-and-neck race.” (Merkel will face the voters in the fall, another test of pro-E.U., anti-Russia sentiment.)
Perhaps Trump’s victory was not a harbinger of an era of right-wing populism, but an aberration that serves as a warning to Western democracies about the danger of embracing demagogues who do not embrace the values of freedom, tolerance and the rule of law.
Macron’s was also a victory over foreign interference in France’s elections. Macron reportedly was the victim of a “massive” hacking and document dump on the last day of campaigning, another alleged instance of Russia’s alleged efforts to undermine pro-Western, pro-E.U. candidates. Hillary Clinton, who knows something about Russian counterintelligence, tweeted, “Victory for Macron, for France, the EU, & the world. Defeat to those interfering w/democracy. (But the media says I can’t talk about that).”
“Today’s result … was much bigger than the candidacy of Mr. Macron — it sent the strongest possible message to Russian President Vladimir Putin that his worldview has once again been rejected by European voters who embrace democratic values, human rights, and institutions such as the European Union,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, Md., ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a written statement. ” In spite of allegations of Russian interference similar to that seen in our country last year, democratic institutions across France proved resilient. I hope that French authorities will conduct a full investigation into the scope of Russian interference in order to build even better defenses for the future and to share lessons with other democracies vulnerable to Russian aggression.”
In sum, Macron shows one possible strategy for defeating pro-Russian populists: Unflinching optimism, defense of democratic values and the promise of something new, an effort to respond to the needs of the dispossessed and disgruntled countrymen who have not shared in the promise of globalism. Whereas other traditional parties faltered, Macron could present himself as a reformer, an outsider — but one with an authentic voice in keeping with the country’s democratic traditions and commitment to inclusiveness.
The challenge, as Macron put it, is “immense” — for after campaigning there is governing. Macron must show how in practice his centrism works to the advantage of the have-nots. If he does not, the extremists will be back in force. For now, however, France, Europe and the West can celebrate the victory of light over darkness, reason over fear and true patriotism over angry nativism.
Jennifer Rubin is a Washington Post columnist.