France holds its final-round presidential election on Sunday with Emmanuel Macron the favourite to win against Marine Le Pen. The stand-off between the liberal centrist and his nationalist, far-right opponent is being watched closely in large parts of Europe, but also globally, for its potential ramifications beyond the continent.
Given the size of Macron’s polling lead over Le Pen, which is about 60%-40% in numerous recent surveys, it can be overlooked that he only – relatively recently and unexpectedly – broke through as a champion of the centre ground in France. His rise has defied the march of conservative populism in many industrialised countries in the past year, which has seen parties on the left and centre sometimes taking a political battering.
Beyond these classical political notions of left and right, however, a key dividing line between a liberal cosmopolitan and a populist (or even xenophobic authoritarian) has become more salient. In this dichotomy, it is populists who made the running in much of 2016, revolting against the political centre.
This liberal cosmopolitan versus populist battle, which played out in Donald Trump’s victory against Hillary Clinton in the United States last November, is in evidence in France. On the one hand, the centrist Macron has a strongly pro-European Union vision and faith in France’s traditional alliance system.
By contrast, Le Pen has called for a French referendum on the country’s EU membership and if she pulls off an upset victory on Sunday, it would be a more savage blow to the bloc than Britain’s exit, not least given France’s eurozone membership. Moreover, she has questioned the need for Nato in the 21st century, asserting that it now exists to serve “Washington’s objectives in Europe”, and called instead for closer ties with Russia.
A Macron victory would have significance well beyond France inasmuch as it would underline that the political centre ground can still potentially hold out against conservative, anti-establishment forces despite the populist mood in much of the world.
The evidence for this is mounting, not just with the victory of the Dutch Liberals over the far-right, populist Freedom Party in Netherlands in March, but also December’s Austrian presidential election, which saw the convincing defeat of the Freedom Party leader, Norbert Hofer, who would have become Europe’s first far-right head of state since 1945.
Should Macron win on Sunday, his victory would be remarkable; his rise to prominence as an outsider has bveen meteoric, despite his previous “insider status” as an economic minister in outgoing President François Hollande’s Cabinet. Moreover, his success may offer lessons to other left and centrist politicians in coming years, if victory comes his way – he will have proved a foil to Le Pen and fellow conservative populists by positioning himself against the old left and right, and rejecting traditional “class politics”.
Macron’s candidacy has been driven, in part, by his pioneering of a new political movement, En Marche! (Forward!), whose popularity reflects a significant vacuum of power created by the scandals surrounding the centre-right Republican presidential candidate François Fillon, and also the lacklustre centre-left Socialist candidacy of Benoît Hamon, who trailed badly in fifth place in the first-round election last month.
A second factor driving Macron’s success is his relative youth: at 39 he has the appearance of change to many voters, and would become the youngest ever president of the Fifth Republic.
What Macron’s success also appears to underline is that politicians of the centre ground benefit from having an optimistic vision for tackling complex, long-term policy challenges such as stagnant living standards, and involving people in the political process, to build public consensus and confidence in solutions.
France has suffered from economic pain since at least the 2008-2009 international financial crisis, and from years of double digit unemployment (currently 10%) and low growth (1.4% this year) driving discontent with the status quo.
Tackling tough-to-solve, first-order challenges in this context is a significant hurdle that centrist politicians across much of the world are widely perceived to have failed to jump, giving rise to perceptions of a broken process and that democracy itself is failing. Macron has skilfully navigated this, despite widespread distrust of the political class in France that sees on Sunday – for the first time in the country’s modern history – neither of the parties of mainstream centre-right Republicans or centre-left Socialists that have governed since World War II running in the final round of a presidential election.
The perceived failure of conventional politics created not just the political window of opportunity for Macron to run, but for Le Pen too, despite the often half-baked, damaging agendas she and other populist politicians champion. Contrary to what some of this ilk assert, there is no silver bullet agenda that can address, overnight, challenges such as stagnant living standards.
Instead, long-term, concerted efforts are needed to better address these issues with a range of educational, home affairs, economic and other policies. As Macron appears to appreciate, such an agenda – which he recognises requires significant reform in France in coming years – can move towards demonstrating more effectively how a fair, inclusive democratic politics can help overcome or ameliorate the problems many people are experiencing in a world changing fast in the face of globalisation.
Taken overall, polls indicate Sunday’s election will showcase the continued buffers to the spread of far-right anti-establishment politics in Western democracies. Macron’s anticipated victory would thus be a fillip to liberal politics in France and internationally, and potentially has lessons for other candidates of the centre ground who seek to win power.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics