Despite Macron’s victory, the French elections remain a far-right victory
Like all worst nightmares, we woke up to find we were still dreaming. Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election is not the end of anything. Had Remain won in 2016, it wouldn’t have marked the end of Project Brexit either.
In France, as everywhere in Europe, the center and the center left seem to think they can repel the extreme right by giving it ground and aping its rhetoric. The result is a “new normal,” in which the far right has become the main opposition to the status quo. They cannot be defeated just like that.
Five years ago, in the spring of 2017, Le Pen was on the brink of the French presidency and Europe was on the brink of disintegration. As France’s center-left crumbled, opponents of the far-right were forced to rally around centrist newcomer Macron, whose platform combined unabashed pro-Europeanism with an open determination to confront the unions and to “modernize” (i.e. deregulate) the French economy. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leading an insurrectional campaign of the “sovereignist” left, failed to qualify for the final round and remained third.
On Sunday, French voters made exactly the same choice, after an almost identical result in the first round. The turmoil and trauma of the pandemic, along with a major war on Europe’s borders, only rearranged the conditions under which Le Pen and Macron met. Le Pen’s financial ties to Russia and his political ties to Vladimir Putin have not dented his popularity. Instead, the far right achieved its best electoral result, winning over 40% of the vote. Le Pen, a candidate who has promised to ban the hijab in public spaces and deny non-citizens access to welfare, won almost three million votes more than in 2017, including a high vote among young people and a clear majority of French workers.
Receive our free daily email
Get a full story, straight to your inbox every day of the week.
It is an outcome that will embolden racists across the Western world and should serve as a wake-up call to progressives everywhere – and to our entire political class. Yet for many it will be a sleep aid. The rise of Macronism is a crucial supporting pillar of the self-confidence of much of Europe’s political leadership, whose position is based on their belief that the old technocratic political model can hold. For this narrative, Macron’s initial victory in 2017, alongside Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020, marked the moment when the new global far right retreated.
The problem with this view of history is that it relies on a selective reading of reality. Yes, liberal progressives have just won in Slovenia. But in Hungary, Orbán has just won a landslide re-election. The populist right-wing Swedish Democrats are expected to retain their third place in September. The Lega are no longer in power in Italy, but they are within touching distance. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), Dutch Freedom Party and Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) are all here to stay. In Spain, the far-right Vox party has made inroads, although in a much more limited way.