Why the French election result is an outcome to rejoice
Some lessons for liberals from Emmanuel Macron’s win in the French elections over sectarian Marine Le Pen
By any reckoning, the margin by which Emmanuel Macron has won the French Presidency is impressive. With 20.43 million votes, he had secured 65.8% of the total votes cast against the formidable challenge of Marine Le Pen of Front National, who polled 10.6 million votes, with 98% of the precincts reporting. Newspapers and analysts are correct in describing the victory as landslide.
But Macron’s victory is not against any ordinary opponent. Le Pen represents a narrow nationalist, mean and nasty politics, which has increasingly become unabashed in France and across many parts of the world. She has been capitalising on discontented voters who have lost jobs, who believe the problems lie with the elite, or with the immigrant who dresses differently, eats differently, or prays to a different god. And Le Pen hasn’t gone away. At 48, she is young enough to be around for a long time, and will be a strong candidate in the next Presidential elections in 2022.
A week is a long time in politics, the former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had said. So five years may seem like an eternity. But during that period, if Macron’s presidency falters, and if Europe itself flounders, the right will become more resurgent in France. This is for two reasons—one, Macron is an outsider in French politics. He did not represent any political party, and has to build a political organisation from scratch. For legislative successes, he will have to rely on disgruntled major parties, which have been humbled in the presidential elections. Two, that threat is imminent—in June France elects a new Parliament, where Le Pen’s supporters may regroup and give the FN a sizeable presence in the Parliament, making legislative business difficult, if not impossible. The traditional parties—the Republicans (whose candidate François Fillon had polled 7.21 million votes in the first round in April, behind Le Pen at 7.68 million and Macron at 8.65 million) or the socialists (whose standard-bearer Benoît Hamon polled a mere 2.9 million votes and was humiliated)—are licking their wounds. If they choose recalcitrance over national interest, then Macron’s leadership will get stymied. In such a scenario, the outcome would be unpredictable, and if voters sit out the elections, and the vote against FN is not consolidated, then the determined extremists will be strengthened.
If there is a lesson for liberals around the world, it is this—that defeating sectarianism is not hard; but when sectarianism is gaining strength, it is crucial to unite and consolidate. That lesson should not be lost.
Another lesson is to move away from the reductionist thinking of dominos. After the UK decided to leave the European Union in June last year and the US elected Donald Trump, it seemed inevitable that nationalist politicians would win elections easily. But the arc of history works in mysterious ways—yes, electoral outcomes are determined by local concerns, but also shaped by local values. Austria fended off the right wing challenge of Norbert Hofer, albeit narrowly. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s party gained only five more seats to finish at 20. While it made it the second-largest party, in a house of 150, there was almost nobody willing to form a government with him. And now in France, voters have rallied in large numbers to support a 39-year-old man with little political experience to lead one of the world’s leading industrialised nations.
This does not guarantee election results in Germany later this year, but Angela Merkel may now feel a bit more secure. (UK’s elections in June are an exception; Conservatives have essentially taken over the UK Independence Party’s agenda; Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party seems deluded as it believes in a mythical revolution that’s not going to occur, even as it keeps losing support across the country). And that UK exceptionalism may have to do with local values.
The local value that separates the UK from Europe is a broad, though by no means strong, consensus around the idea of a united Europe. The European Union is a project, an ideal, that emerged out of the ashes of World War II. Many Europeans like many aspects of the Union; many resent many aspects of the Union. There is rarely agreement about which is which across all countries. Those who felt Le Pen might lead France out of Europe were misreading history—France was one of the architects of the Union; sensing British desire for exceptionalism, it was the French President Charles de Gaulle who objected to British entry into the European Union.
The third lesson is the impact of terrorism. The default assumption many make is that countries that suffer from terrorist attacks are likely to build walls and erect barriers to outsiders, and vote in nationalists. While Trump lost the popular vote, he won enough votes in the electoral college to be elected president, and he makes that default assumption. That’s why even though the bulk of recent terror attacks have been home-grown, by Americans on Americans, and not because someone has entered the country illegally recently to commit a massacre, he wants to build a wall, make it harder for foreigners to visit the US, and may even relax gun controls. Now consider France: in January 2015, two men killed 17 people in terror attacks in Paris, targeting the office of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. In November that year, 130 died in coordinated attacks at a stadium and a night club and elsewhere in Paris. In July last year, 86 died when a truck rammed into people in Nice. And yet, on Sunday, the French voters didn’t vote for the nationalist; they voted for the pragmatist centrist who believes in globalisation and an integrated world. You respond to terror not by becoming like the terrorist, not by embracing arbitrariness, but by shunning extremism, and by reaffirming the values of the republic.
Why are the French so different? Sudhir Hazareesingh’s charming 2015 book, How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People offers many insights. The French preference for the abstract over the concrete, the skill to combine logical reason with magical thinking, and its educational system which makes philosophy a required subject at high school, are some of the reasons why they are the way they are. He describes the French mindscape as: “The presentation of ideas through overarching frameworks; a preference for considering questions in their essence, rather than in their particular manifestations; a fondness for apparent contradictions; and a tendency to frame issues around binary oppositions.” This preference of the ideal over the reality goes back to Descartes (I think therefore I am) and Rousseau’s The Social Contract. Those are fine building blocks in creating a civilisation.
The French result is an outcome to rejoice. To borrow from Jean-Paul Sartre’s titles, for the age of reason to prevail, a society needs iron in its soul. And yet the end, all it has got, is reprieve. Dark clouds remain, and there is no exit.
It was Cardinal Richelieu who said, “The pen is mightier than the sword – take away the sword; states can be saved without it,” in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play. Richelieu knew of a plot to kill him, but as he was a priest, he wouldn’t take up arms to defend himself. The French voters have shown this weekend that some words are mightier than Le Pen: liberte, egalite, fraternite.