In France, the center holds against Le Pen
A wave of relief spread through France and the rest of Europe this week, after the centrist, pro–European Union candidate Emmanuel Macron came out on top in the first round of the nation’s presidential election, ahead of ultranationalist Marine Le Pen. Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker and political novice who heads his own party, Forward!, captured 24 percent of the first-round vote. He is widely expected to defeat Le Pen in a May 7 runoff. The 48-year-old Le Pen—who wants to restrict immigration, ban the wearing of Muslim head scarves in public, drop the euro, and hold a referendum on France’s EU membership—claimed second place with 21 percent. For the first time in six decades, no candidate from France’s long-dominant Socialists or conservatives reached the runoff, a reflection of the widespread frustration over the country’s 10 percent unemployment rate, stagnant economy, and recurring terrorist attacks.
The country’s political establishment quickly rallied around Macron, who holds a 62-38 edge over Le Pen in one polling average. If elected, he would be France’s youngest head of state since Napoleon. “Nothing’s won yet,” Macron cautioned. Le Pen, who President Trump said last week was the strongest candidate “on borders,” said the runoff was a fight against “the savage globalization that has put our civilization in danger.” In a bid to moderate her image, Le Pen stepped down as leader of the far-right National Front. Meanwhile, cybersecurity firm Trend Micro said that Macron’s campaign was being targeted by the same Russian operatives who hacked the email accounts of senior Democratic Party members ahead of last year’s U.S. presidential election.
What the editorials said
Defenders of liberal democracy breathed more easily when the results came in from France, said The New York Times. The country may be deeply fractured, but it remains open to Macron’s hopeful message of economic reform and “his openness to immigrants and diversity.” France faces a stark choice on May 7, and the future of the country and the European Union will depend not just on Macron’s ability to win that vote, “but on his subsequent success in delivering on his commitment.”
Le Pen would be a disaster for France and the West, said NationalReview.com. She combines virulent xenophobia with fiscal irresponsibility, vowing to expand France’s already bloated welfare programs. And she’s hostile to NATO while being chummy with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Macron has his own worrying flaws. He rightfully intends to cut bureaucracy and corporate taxes, but doesn’t seem to understand “why immigration is a source of tension.” His presidency could exacerbate “the resentments and the cultural unease that have pushed so many into Le Pen’s arms.”
What the columnists said
The buildup to the first round saw “dire predictions of a right-wing victory,” a backlash against globalization and immigration, said Michael Cohen in The Boston Globe. “But a funny thing has happened on the way to this dark European future: a backlash to the backlash.” It helped that after briefly moderating, Le Pen slipped back into nasty old habits and denied French culpability for the World War II roundup by French police of 13,000 Jews who were then sent to Nazi death camps. “Then there is the Trump factor.” His presidency is a reminder to the French “that we no longer live in an era that allows for the luxury of protest votes.”
This election suggests there’s “a disturbingly large constituency in France for extremist ideologies,” said Max Boot in Commentary Magazine.com. Le Pen and the third-place, far-left candidate Jean- Luc Mélenchon—a fan of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez—garnered a combined 41 percent. To win, Macron must prove his brand of centrism can handle high unemployment and a 4.7 million–strong Muslim minority “that is far from assimilated.” Still, “the center appears to have held. For now.”
Don’t rule out “a fluke victory” for Le Pen, said Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post. She could peel off Mélenchon voters, “who sympathize with her objections to trade, bankers, and international business.” Expect an anti-Macron smear campaign “by Russian, alt-right, and pro-Trump trolls.” Whatever the outcome on May 7, Le Pen and France’s populists won’t go away. They represent passions roiling every Western country and “pose a genuine and powerful threat to liberal democracy as we know it.” ■