Emmanuel Macron’s Victory Holds Hope for France, and Lessons for America

While America succumbed to right-wing nationalism, France rejected it decisively. Democrats should pay attention.

Nearly 250 years ago, French ideas and French economic support enabled the success of the American Revolution. With the landslide election of Emmanuel Macron as president of France on Sunday, France could again point the way to a much-needed overhaul of U.S. politics.

Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old center-left newcomer to politics, decisively defeated Marine Le Pen of the ethnonationalist National Front party, 66 percent to 34 percent. Macron’s victory provides a crucial firewall against the right-wing nationalism that has convulsed the United States and the United Kingdom—at least temporarily protecting the future of the European Union—while reinvigorating the French economy, politics, and spirit.

A former investment banker and Minister of the Economy under outgoing President Francois Hollande, Macron is an outsider who formed his own party, En Marche! (On the Move) barely a year ago and is the first president in decades not affiliated with France’s two major parties: the Socialists and the Republicans. Endorsed by Barack Obama, Macron—like the former American president—could bring a certain hipness to France in a way that spurs pride, hope, and dynamism.

Macron and Le Pen prevailed as the top two vote-getters after the first round of voting two weeks ago, which had more than its share of drama and colorful characters. The four leading candidates included a witty former communist who campaigned using holograms, a Catholic conservative lawmaker who allegedly paid family members more than $1 million for fictional jobs and accepted gifts of two men’s suits worth $13,000, the blond daughter of a Holocaust denier who stoked hatred toward immigrants (Le Pen), and a baby-faced young intellectual who married his high-school teacher (Macron).

Talking to voters in France during the last few days and at last night’s massive, flag-drenched rally in the shadow of the Louvre, many saw Macron’s win as “the beginning of a new era” in French politics,” as a Parisian man working in communications told me.

Macron, whose rallies have conspicuously featured seas of both French and EU flags, may provide the shot of adrenaline that the 28-nation economic and political union needs. The EU has been battered by the British vote to exit, (German) imposed fiscal austerity that has brought poorer countries like Greece to their knees, and the influx of millions of immigrants and refugees from Syria and North Africa.

Still, all is not smooth sailing. Some leftists described the election as a choice “between the plague and cholera,” dissatisfied with both Macron and Le Pen after their preferred candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, lost in the first round of voting. “I voted for a free-market liberal to avoid having a fascist,” said a teacher in the Loire Valley who initially supported Melenchon. Macron’s next major hurdle is the legislative elections in June. Although En Marche! is fielding candidates throughout France, the big question is whether other parties—the mainstream parties (the Republicans and Socialists), as well as the National Front—will win enough seats to impede Macron’s ability to realize his ambitious agenda.

“This can mark the start of a new era of more tolerance, equity, more jobs, and transparency,” an IT engineer in Nice told me. “But he will have a short time to prove that we can move forward.”

However long he has to “prove” it, Macron’s political path and philosophy offers important lessons for Democrats in America. Macron, of course, starts from a much farther left policy baseline: He plans to extend—not defend or create—one of the world’s most successful single-payer health-care systems and, even if his plan to reform the labor-law passes, it will still be far better to be a low-wage service-sector worker in France than the United States.

However, his acknowledgement last night of Le Pen voters’ economic and cultural anger felt more in touch with his country than either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders managed to convey. As his step-grandchildren took the stage with him last night, Macron also seemed to have a much better sense of, and comfort with, the many shades of changing families than do American progressives. And Macron is much more at ease with speaking in the same breath of pro-growth and pro-environmental policies than Democrats who often twist themselves into knots over these issues.

Democrats would be well-advised to study the secret sauce in Emmanuel Macron’s victory as they lick their wounds and start devising a strategy to defeat the wave of Trumpism.

Andrew L. Yarrow

Andrew L. Yarrow is the author of recent books such as Thrift and Measuring America. He is a public-policy professional, historian, and writer whose articles and books have focused on the relationships between economics, culture, and politics. See: www.andrewlyarrow.com.