The civilized world has stopped holding its breath. Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France, not Marine Le Pen.
True, on election eve the polls showed the centrist Macron an easy winner; but given the dismal performance of electoral polls in recent times, nothing could be taken for granted. Amid the volatility of French and European politics these days, anything was possible. A last-minute cyberattack on Macron’s campaign, leaking internal emails, injected an additional element of unpredictability. The voting was watched with cliffhanger anxiety, as if France teetered on the brink of an abyss.
In the end it was a lopsided 66 percent to 34 percent victory. France decisively repudiated the politics of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and the canny figure of Le Pen herself, branded by Macron in their closing debate as “the high priestess of fear.” Sanity prevailed over fanaticism, moderate proposals over radical schemes.
Yet, it was also a defeat. The fact that someone like Le Pen could make it to the final round and win 35 percent of the electorate — 11 million French voters — is a defeat. It is a defeat for the nation that Le Pen tripled her infamous father’s strongest showing of 4.8 million in 2002. She navigated her far-right party toward the mainstream by toning down the rhetoric of hate she inherited and until recently embraced, and moved French politics farther to the right.
As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commented in an interview on Sunday:
“I really do believe that these populists are changing the character of the politics just by being there, so even mainstream candidates are having to respond to their agenda. You see fewer people talking about free trade. You see countries talking about industrial policy and protectionism. It’s hard to defend immigrants almost any place in the world today.
“The rise of nativism is having an impact on the politics, even if the candidates aren’t winning,” Rice said.
Populism and nativism are polite words for what Le Pen represents. Although she stepped down from the leadership of the National Front and ran on her own ticket, no one was misled by the tactic. There was no doubting what and whom she represented.
Even shorn of the overt anti-Semitism with which the National Front has for decades besmirched France, her own advocacies did not promise a friendly time for the Jews of France. She spoke in favor of a ban on religious head-coverings and any slaughter of animals that did not use stunning. Though her primary target was the burka and halal of Muslims, Jews were equally threatened. It is already dangerous to go in the streets of Paris wearing a kippah; Le Pen would have made it illegal. And a ban on shechitah would have been disastrous.
Furthermore, there is much ambiguity in the aftermath of the election. As wide as the margin of Macron’s victory was, the question marks that hang over France and Europe still loom large.
Macron, though he won on a centrist platform, did not represent the established parties of France. Their candidates fell by the wayside during the campaign. Macron stood at the head of En Marche! (On the Move), the party he founded just a year ago.
He is himself a relatively unknown factor. Though he served as minister of the Economy (2014-16), he has never held elective office. The mainstream electorate also demanded change, and it took an outsider like him to beat an outsider like Le Pen. In other words, it was a protest vote on both sides.
Le Pen and the National Front aren’t going away. In a post-election speech, Le Pen said the NF had to renew itself and that she would start the “deep transformation of our movement,” returning as chairwoman in the parliamentary vote.
There is speculation that she will change the name of the party to something more palatable to the average voter, something more mainstream. Perhaps she will attempt a purge of the more primitive elements.
She cannot be underestimated. Marine Le Pen threw her own father out of the party he founded, and took it over herself. She expurgated its appalling anti-Semitism and replaced it with the language of populism: against immigration, Islamization, rejection of Europe. Or, in her words, being for “patriotism versus globalization.”
Le Pen failed to capture the presidency of France on Sunday. But she has succeeded in capturing a large part of France. A victory for Macron, yes; but, sadly, also for Le Pen.