France Just Dodged a Bullet…Or Did It?

France has just elected its youngest president in history by an overwhelming margin. Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen with nearly two-thirds of the vote in the presidential runoff, a margin of victory that would make most politicians exceedingly jealous. (Here I must exclude certain autocrats who would surely say, “Only 66%? I win 99% of the vote!”) This has caused many observers, including myself, to breathe a sigh of relief.

While he may be to the left of Bernie Sanders on the political spectrum, Macron is much more in the realm of normality than Le Pen, who many have branded the French version of Donald Trump. Her National Front Party is anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-globalization, and pretty much anti- anything that isn’t as French as a baguette wrapped in a croissant. She also seems to be opposed to people wearing religious symbols in the public square and has a worrying lack of policy know-how that became clear at times during the campaign.

Had Le Pen won, she would have pushed to pull France out of the European Union, which may well have torpedoed the entire European project. Now, you may be thinking, why should I care about the EU? Isn’t it just a bunch of stuck up, liberal, corrupt bureaucrats telling everyone how to run their business? Yes, that is probably a fair characterization of the EU. Nevertheless, and despite its multitudinous flaws, it has helped to bring about cooperation on a continent that badly needed it after being torn apart by war. It also serves as a bulwark against Russian influence, which is probably why Russian hackers were busy in the final days of the campaign attempting to sabotage the pro-EU Macron.

It is not difficult to see why Le Pen and her National Front Party should have attracted a considerable amount of support, by which I mean enough to give her the highest percentage in the initial round of voting. Along with the rest of the world, France has been heavily influenced these past few decades by rapid economic globalization, despite a number of government policies that could easily be labeled “protectionist”. (When political people use that word, it isn’t a compliment so much as an insult.)

More to the point, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, which has caused some people to question if the country is still what it once was and if their values are under attack. They have quite literally come under attack in recent years from both domestic and foreign terrorists holding some version of the Islamic faith, however twisted. I am sure some French voters were inspired by Britain giving the boot to the EU and thought, “Why not here?”

Marine Le Pen speaking at a European Parliament meeting in 2015. Official EU Parliament photo

Yet, Le Pen would have likely been a disastrous president. Her radical policies would have created chaos and probably done little to actually help France economically and even from a security standpoint. Thus, I am not remotely sad that she lost. My biggest concern is the same as many foreign policy analysts: the rise of populism in the West and the loss of faith in institutions. We saw symptoms of this in the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the rise in popularity of various political parties on the far right and far left of the political spectrum. In each case, there has been a slightly different set of circumstances and the explanation for victory is not exactly the same. Nevertheless, it is hard to miss the overall trend.

Whether it be an international organization like the EU, multinational corporations, the “mainstream media”, or our national political regimes, average citizens certainly seem to be losing faith in our institutions. This is not simply a case of people being too stupid to know what they have, although the passing of time can certainly cause familiarity to breed contempt. I also place the blame on the institutions themselves for failing to prove their worth and or defend their existence effectively. Long-standing political parties are failing not so much because the people are too dumb to realize how much good they are doing, but because they have stopped paying attention to the people. Even so, the danger is that voters start turning to outsiders, mavericks, and upstarts who may seem charismatic and empathetic, but who in reality have just as much potential for corruption as the ones who have been around forever…and far less experience actually getting things done.

Therefore, the United States just elected as president a man who has no experience holding political office. This very fact was part of his appeal to many voters who have grown tired of politics as usual. Yet, the early days of the Trump administration have revealed just how inexperienced and unprepared are many of the people in the executive branch. They have fumbled policy rollouts, made a circus out of press conferences, spoken with competing voices, offended foreign leaders, and struggled to win over members of their own party in Congress. These are not necessarily the actions of individuals who are certifiably stupid, but rather individuals who aren’t used to the way you get things done in Washington, D.C.

People may be angry at our institutions, and not without good reason, but the answer is not to throw the baby out with the bath water. If you abandon those institutions completely, you take your chances with people who are unproven and often very radical, and the result is rarely good. The answer is to reform the institutions rather than rejecting them outright: otherwise, you are likely to end up with a kind of anarchy.

Because of this concern I have about the loss of faith in institutions, I was glad to see that a majority of French voters were unwilling to lend their support to Marine Le Pen. However, the celebration is decidedly muted. France may have dodged a bullet, but they are certainly not in the clear, for while Le Pen would have almost certainly been a disaster, there is still a good likelihood that Macron could be one as well.

I mentioned Macron’s youth relative to all the previous presidents of France. His experience at the top level of government is very limited. He certainly has never held any significant executive position of which I am aware. What is more troubling is the fact that the time he spent serving in government under the outgoing President Francois Hollande was not exactly a success. His policies alienated many and did not deliver success for his party – the Socialists. Now, Macron did not actually run as the Socialist Party candidate in this year’s election. He formed a new party called En Marche! (Yes, the exclamation point is included!), which essentially means “Let’s go!” or “Onward!” My sense is that Macron is really more style than substance. His resume seems quite thin.

Here is the real problem: due to a series of failings that I will not take the time to review, the two main parties that have dominated French politics in my lifetime – the Socialists and the Republicans – were completely absent in the final round of voting. This is almost unthinkable. It would be as if the Republicans and Democrats were not the top two parties in an American presidential election, or at the very least as if the Tories and Labour were not the top two vote getters in a UK general election. This speaks to the lack of faith that the French public has in these institutions, but it also speaks to something else: the lack of decent candidates.

Much like their American brethren last November, French voters went to the polls this spring with few good choices. I saw a headline on France24 in the final moments before the victor was announced saying that they had the highest abstention rate in years. Likewise, I heard a higher than usual amount of Americans telling me last fall that they simply could not bring themselves to vote for either of the two major candidates. (Oh yes…I was also one of those people.) I heard an even higher number of voters say they would hold their nose and pull the lever for either Trump or Clinton, but they were fairly disgusted all the same.

Current UK Prime Minister Theresa May in an official photo.

The UK is getting ready to have its own general election, called early by Prime Minister Theresa May, presumably in the hope that she can take advantage of a floundering Labour Party and gain a bigger majority in parliament. Her bet may well pay off, but the fact is that most people in Britain are once again not all that excited about any of their leaders. The UK does not vote for a prime minister directly, but I think it’s safe to say that the current leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is easily the most unpopular since the 1980s – maybe even a lot earlier than that. Much like Donald Trump, he has struggled to maintain the allegiance of people within his own party.

Theresa May is no Margaret Thatcher, either. She is attempting to preside over Brexit when she was campaigning against it a year ago, she has made some Britons angry with how nice she has been to Trump, and she is perhaps not as personable as former PM David Cameron, the man who led the Conservative Party to victory in 2010 and 2015.

There may be unique reasons that each of these countries is suffering from bad candidates, but it is particularly appalling to me that in a nation such as the United States, which is blessed with so many talented and resourceful people, we were left with such a bad crop of candidates last year. Here I don’t just mean the two that made it to the general election, but rather all those who competed in the primary races. The fact that an oddball like Bernie Sanders could garner so much Democratic support speaks as much to the weakness of their candidates as anything else. They had no one on the level of Obama. Likewise, the Republicans had no one capable of taking down Donald Trump: yes, Donald Trump! That, my friends, is a sad state of affairs.

There may have been no better year for a third party candidate to jump in and be successful, but the two that received widespread attention were equally objectionable to yours truly. Had someone like Michael Bloomberg run, for instance, I would have been very tempted to vote for him, even though I disagree with many of his social policies. In all the time observing politics, I had never seen such a terrible crop of primary candidates, and certainly never such a bad pairing of general election foes. Here I think even many people who are older than me would agree.

I imagine many French voters felt similarly lost attempting to vote this year. They had the arguably racist Le Pen, the style over substance that is Macron, a Republican candidate who was under criminal investigation but refused to drop out of the race, a Socialist candidate who found a way to be left of most other Socialists, and another dude who was best known for using a hologram to appear at multiple rallies at once. France is a respectable country with a great history and a decent economy, despite the weight of government regulation. Surely they could have done better than that!

Then candidate Donald Trump speaking at a rally in August 2016 with some of his typical hand gestures. Photo by Gage Skidmore

This begs the question: why is there such a dearth of decent candidates in major elections? The reasons vary depending on the location. In the United States, the way we conduct primary elections, the phenomenon of gerrymandering, and the race of media outlets to one extreme or the other have certainly all contributed to candidates who are farther from the political center. The reduction of news to smaller and smaller soundbites and social media posts has raised up people who can crack a joke or make a stinging remark over those capable of conducting in-depth policy analysis. Many intelligent people may likewise be feeling that they are better off not running for office: they can accomplish more good in the private sector and make a lot more money at the same time.

If all of these trends continue unabated, and if people continue to favor those who will “drain the swamp” over those who actually understand how the swamp operates, we will continue to get stuck with terrible candidates in major elections. This will result in less effective institutions, which will in turn make people lose faith in institutions, which will in turn cause them to vote for the same type of people who created the mess in the first place. It is hard to explain all of this to voters, particularly in a ten second soundbite. It can come off sounding a little self-righteous, as if I were some kind of know-it-all assuring people to just keep the corrupt people in office for their own good. I am not in favor of corruption. I want to see government reformed. However, I do not think that simply taking a bulldozer to our revered institutions is going to help matters. We will be left with only rubble.

Therefore, France is better off than it would have been with Le Pen, but by no means if it well off, in my opinion. The global wave of populism has been somewhat slowed. The bleeding has been halted for the moment. Yet, the underlying impulses are by no means removed. We can expect more political upheaval in the coming years. I can only hope that people will start valuing character and experience in candidates rather the ability to deliver a good zinger. I hope that they will not fully distrust one institution and blindly trust another. I hope that they will demand better candidates and more accountability from their institutions, while not abandoning those institutions outright.

Those are my thoughts following this year’s French presidential election. Perhaps in the end the French were too liberal to throw in their lot with a far right candidate. Perhaps Trump and Brexit are the outliers and not the rule. Only time will tell, but I think we should only be cautiously optimistic. It may not take much to push the world back the way of Le Pen.