Results from the French primary election are in: center-right, pro-EU finance banker Emmanuel Macron defeated the racist, far right nationalist Marine Le Pen, and will face her again in the runoff. With exit polls showing Macron with a commanding lead over Le Pen in a one-on-one contest, opponents of xenophobia and fascism around the world are breathing a sigh of relief.
But they shouldn’t. Populism, especially for young voters, is increasingly carrying the day.
Like most of the developed world, France is facing a political revolution born of an economy that no longer guarantees job security and wages that can keep up with the cost of living, combined with demographic changes that exacerbate racist reaction to that economic anxiety. Those forces have led to a xenophobic hysteria among older conservatives reflected by Trump and Brexit on the right, as well as strong yearnings for a socialist upending of the current economic order among younger and left-leaning voters. Despite the apparent victory for corporate-friendly centrism symbolized by Macron, France is also facing the same dynamic.
Most obvious, of course, is support for Le Pen. Her rebranding of her father’s far-right Front National party as a kinder, gentler far-right nationalism is partly to be credited for her success, but in reality the same wave of anti-immigrant hatred that helped empower Trump and Nigel Farage is also driving her vote.
But a similar upheaval is also taking place on the French left. In a shocking turn of events, neither of the traditional French center-left and center-right parties made it into the runoff. Macron’s victory notwithstanding, political instability is still incredibly high.
Current president Francois Hollande’s popularity is brutally low in France in large part due to his embrace of EU austerity economics, which in turn has led many on the left to also oppose a European Union whose finance-sector-driven policies they see as hostile to the interests of the working class. The result of Hollande’s cratering approval is that his party’s candidate Hamon, despite having a very progressive policy platform, failed to get traction.
Meanwhile, the center-right candidate Fillon became embroiled in a scandal of personal corruption that drove him down in the polls. But even had it not been for his personal problems, it’s not clear that Fillon’s brand of conservatism could have survived the leeching of right-wing support by LePen, any more than Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio’s brand of conservatism in the United States survived the Trump phenomenon. The center-right has lost the confidence of conservative voters.
Emmanuel Macron, a banker by profession and former Hollande associate, stepped up with a newly minted party to take the disaffected votes of both the center-left and center-right. If the centrists were correct that a post-partisan unity candidate in the mold of Michael Bloomberg were the answer to the problem, Macron should have dominated. But he never managed to clear more than about a quarter of the vote in public polling, and the left felt itself abandoned entirely.
So along came Jean-Luc Melenchon, a caustic left populist with a checkered history, overfriendliness with Russia and an anti-EU bent. Not a great choice, but the true French left didn’t have anywhere else viable to turn (this should sound familiar to Americans who watched the Democratic primary.) Melenchon began to skyrocket in the polls, pushing him to nearly 20% of the vote and turning what had been a purely Macron-LePen battle into a four-way race with himself and Fillon in the running. Melenchon ended up falling short, but his dramatic surge was notable.
Most interesting, however, is the strong populist sentiment among France’s youth, which largely rejected the corporate-friendly candidacies of Macron and Fillon in supporting Melenchon and Le Pen. Among 18-24 year olds, Melenchon was a crushing favorite with 30% of the vote, with Le Pen in a distant second at 21%. Again, this should sound familiar.
It was Chris Hayes who wrote this immortal tweet back in June 2016:
I don’t want a future in which politics is primarily a battle between cosmopolitan finance capitalism and ethno-nationalist backlash.
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) June 24, 2016
That’s unfortunately where France is at the moment, and in the battle between the two cosmopolitan finance capitalism is the lesser evil and must prevail. But that dynamic won’t last for long.
The future belongs to populism, either on the right or the left. The only question is whether the left will be smart enough to embrace it in time.