Yes, indeed, the solid victory of centrist Emanuel Macron over far-right populist Marine Le Pen in French presidential elections has precluded disaster from befalling Western democracy. This is no exaggeration.
She had sworn to lead France out of the euro, NATO and the European Union. This would have led to the demise of all three – to the delight of her ally, Vladimir Putin.
Macron’s victory has put paid to that nightmare. It has halted (for now) the rise of ultra-nationalist populism in Europe.
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But the battle against dark forces that seek to undermine Western democracies is far from over. So let’s look at what Macron’s victory has achieved and what he still needs to prove.
First, the 39-year-old Macron’s win upended the theory that globalization’s discontents were destined to fuel the continuing rise of populist movements. That theory, of course, had been propelled by Britain’s Brexit vote and by the election of Donald Trump.
Le Pen herself said, on a recent visit to the Kremlin, which helped finance her campaign, “A new world has emerged in these past years. It’s the world of Vladimir Putin, it’s the world of Donald Trump in the United States … and I share with these great nations a vision of cooperation.”
During his campaign, Trump also shared that vision: He cheered Brexit and favored Le Pen (and recently predicted her win) while insulting Germany’s Angela Merkel, a staunch Europeanist. White House strategist Steve Bannon spoke of creating an alliance with ultranationalist European leaders who would end the European Union.
That dream had already faltered in less-crucial Dutch and Austrian elections but was still alive and resting on Le Pen’s shoulders. Now it has ended.
“The notion of an internationale of populists is no longer viable,” says Daniel Fried, former U.S. secretary of state for Europe. Macron’s victory provides proof that Russia’s aggressive meddling in Western politics can backfire (his campaign was seriously hacked just before the election).
“He was the most aware candidate of the Russian threat,” says Laure Mandeville, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Macron wants to increase France’s contribution to NATO and intensify ties with Germany. He definitely won’t support ending sanctions over Russian intervention in Ukraine.
Count Putin a big loser and Merkel a big winner from the French vote.
Moreover, the triumph of Macron’s new centrist party En Marche may provide an alternative political model for addressing the anger of those hurt by globalization. So far, those European parties that have wooed globalization’s “losers” have come from the far nationalist right or the extreme left.
Macron is trying something different. En Marche was formed as an alternative to France’s two mainstream parties of left and right, which were both rejected by voters.
Says diplomat Fried, “Macron has redefined the theory that the radical populist option was the only possibility” for protesting the inability of Western elites to deal with economic and social frustrations. In other words, Macron wants to provide a “third way” for dealing with inequality and immigration.
But here we come to the rub. “Third way” politics has been tried before – remember Tony Blair and Bill Clinton? Can this approach really offer a broader model in today’s far more tumultuous era?
The answer is a qualified maybe, depending on factors that may be peculiar to France – and will cruelly test the talents of Macron.
The victory of France’s youngest president ever, a banker who never before held political office, was due as much to luck as to skillful campaigning. Le Pen’s National Front party had a history of ties to neo-Nazism that she couldn’t entirely shake; the expected winner, Francois Fillon from the center right Republicans Party, did himself in with a corruption scandal.
Macron will be dogged by opposition from both Le Pen’s far right and from the far left, whose candidate got 20 percent of the vote in the first round of the elections. He must win enough seats in next month’s legislative elections to form a majority or to do something unprecedented in French politics, form a governing coalition, probably with members of the Republicans.
Moreover, his key pledge – to create jobs – which will require reforms loosening France’s sclerotic labor market, is bound to bring extremists out on the streets.
Having achieved a near miracle, Macron’s success will depend, I believe, on whether he can speak convincingly across party lines about the need for economic change. The anger generated by this campaign, the fact that Le Pen brought her disgraced party further than ever before, with 34 percent of the vote, seems to have shaken France. People may be more willing to listen now.
Macron has made rookie mistakes, celebrating his first-round win at a posh restaurant frequented by the elite. He often speaks in bland bureaucratic terms. Now he must find stirring words to convince the French, including those in the rust belt and the Muslim ghettoes, that he has new solutions that have eluded conventional politicians.
His victory proved the center can hold at a time when democracies seemed to be falling apart. Now he must demonstrate – to Europe and to America – that the center can govern better than the extremes. All who care about democracy’s future should be rooting for him to succeed.
Trudy Rubin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.