From the moment the British people opted to leave the European Union last summer, and continuing on through Donald Trump’s election several months later, there has been a sense that right-wing populism is on an inevitable rise. This proposition was tested on Sunday, when France voted for its next president. Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader who has been applauded by Trump, finished in second place. Because no candidate received 50 percent of the vote (or even half that), Le Pen will now face Emmanuel Macron, the first-place finisher. Macron, a centrist who left the Socialist Party, formed a new “movement,” En Marche! This allowed him to run as an outsider, which the former banker and government minister most certainly is not. He leads Le Pen by a large margin in polls, but for obvious reasons no one is taking anything for granted anymore. Le Pen’s success in merely reaching the runoff has much of French society frightened.
To discuss the upcoming vote, and the roots of Le Pen’s rise, I spoke by phone with Jeremy Harding, a contributing editor at the London Review of Books, who has been writing about French politics for many years. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the ways in which the Second World War still shapes French political life, whether Macron is another Barack Obama, and why Le Pen might be even more popular by the time of the next election.
Isaac Chotiner: The most striking thing that happened on Sunday is the speed with which nearly the entire French political system, including the very conservative right, lined up against Le Pen. What is it about France that allowed for this?
Jeremy Harding: There is a historical problem, I call it a memory, about the role of fascism during the Second World War and during the occupation and Vichy. This means that whatever it is that Marine Le Pen or her antecedent, Jean-Marie Le Pen, tries to do to reshape the image of the National Front party, there will always be a sense among the establishment politicians that the party evokes the old era of Vichy France. For that reason, the National Front is regarded as a threat to republican values just as Vichy was regarded as a threat to republican values.
If the French political elite is as discredited as it appears to be in the minds of voters, does the sense of her being besieged by the entire establishment play into her hands?
Yes. The thing that we have to think about is the time frame. We have to look at 2002 [when Le Pen père also made it to a runoff], take it from there until where we are now, and then go forward to the next presidential year, 2022. In that span, there will have been two dams set up by the establishment parties and establishment politicians against the National Front. There has also been in this election a load of judicial issues about Le Pen’s party, which she and her followers regard as a way in which the establishment can marginalize her by using the law, which in their eyes is discredited in many ways.
So you are quite right to ask whether this kind of ganging up on the National Front can only be good for it in the long term. I’d be surprised if she weren’t stronger in 2022. This sense of marginalization and grievance and being ganged up on is really, really quite helpful from the National Front’s point of view because they can say that the will of the people has been thwarted. It’s a tradition that she, or whoever succeeds her, can invoke by saying, “We have always been discriminated against. There’s always been a kind of conspiracy of the institutions and the establishment against us. We’re going to get clear of it, and we’re going to embody the will of the people.”
Did Trump’s support for Le Pen make big headlines in France, and what effect do you think it had?
It was covered, but I don’t think it had a great effect. I think that the closing days of the campaign have seen an insular France. I don’t mean a stupid and distracted France but a country looking very, very hard at what’s about to happen. I’d say in general it’s been a very impressive campaign, very testing intellectually, both for the candidates and for the voters.
Where do you situate Macron on the political spectrum, and what do you think he represents, ideologically speaking?
I would still situate him in the Socialist Party, which I don’t regard as socialist, and very few people in France do. He is really the Socialist Party’s anointed heir, actually. The Socialist Party bombed in round one and found a clandestine candidate in Emmanuel Macron. I think in some ways the great cry of Macron, that he too, like [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon and Le Pen, was an anti-system candidate, a person who wished to change the system, has been proven slightly hollow, because he seems to be the perfect candidate for the system.
He lays claim to a center. This is the first time, as far as I know, since 1958, the founding of the Fifth Republic, when the old institutional center parties, center-left and center-right, have been knocked out of the race in round one. But he has a proper centrist position. It says that protectionism as advocated by Le Pen and to some extent by Mélenchon is not the way forward. It says that the European Union is what it is and that we’ve got and we have to work within it. It also says in parentheses, that by remaining in Europe, and we’ve heard this story before, we’re in a stronger position to criticize and change the aspects of those institutions that we don’t actually like. It says that we are for capitalism, but we’re asking the question, what is capitalism for? In Macron’s view, it is for the enrichment of the nation and the nation’s workforce and businesses in order to keep the redistributive program and the culture of France alive. In that sense it is not so different from the current president, [François ] Hollande.
It also doesn’t sound so different from Obama.
Yeah, this is a candidate for regulated capitalism. He’s not the candidate of change, in my view. It seemed to us in Europe that Obama, whatever his shortcomings in his two administrations, was a huge symbolic figure. I’m not sure Macron will make it to that extent. I don’t think the symbolism in Macron will have the resonance of Obama’s symbolism. I think they may be very similar candidates. They’ll navigate the ship, and they’ll try to keep things going for as long as they can, and in 2022 Macron and his team will face a bigger challenge from Le Pen, just as Obama after two administrations got hit hard by Trump.
Mélenchon has so far refused to endorse Macron, who he clearly views as a warmed-over centrist. How big is the split between the two men’s worldviews and the left’s worldview versus Macron’s?
The key difference is where France stands on the European Union, because Mélenchon, a bit like Le Pen, sees the European Union as an engine of market liberal values. It sees the European Union as an intruder, a maker-up of rules, which tend to favor the corporations and business at the expense of local workforces and at the expense of local agriculture. He’s fundamentally a skeptic about the European Union.
Mélenchon is coming out of an anti-liberal market, anti–free trade tradition of the left, and a lot of what he has to say resonates with the French voter. A lot of it, too, coincides with what Marine Le Pen is saying, but Mélenchon is so clearly distinct from her on the matter of immigration.
Macron’s bravest moment of the campaign was when he criticized past French behavior in Algeria as “barbaric” and said the country should apologize. What did you make of that, and how much did it hurt him?
That was a moment. It was also one which he possibly regretted, although he’s OK now. This was the nearest, in terms of internationalism, that Macron ever came to the Mélenchon campaign. Mélenchon is a genuine internationalist in his support of migrants, asylum seekers. He’s very conscious of the global south. Macron is more a market liberal and a proper social liberal at the same time. He would say, “Look, this is a globalized world. We have to let the history slide away if it’s inhibiting our relationships with other countries, and I feel that this whole past with Algeria needs to be cleared away.” He’s modern in that way. He doesn’t carry the weight of history in the way that old Marxists do or people whose politics descend from that tradition do. I think he’s free. He was punished, dragged across the coals for saying it, but actually it’s subsided. I think it was a strange and radical and controversial thing to say, and I admire him for it.
How big a political talent do you think Le Pen is, and is there anything she can do that you think might threaten Macron’s lead?
I’m not sure there’s anything she can do at this stage. Her program is laid out for all to see. Some wild event might do it, but I can’t see it myself. Is she a good politician? I’ve heard her twice. I heard her last week in Marseilles in a closed space with 2,000 National Front supporters. She is a very persuasive politician. She also has the power to appeal to some elements of the left who believe that the European Union is actually the biggest obstacle to a democratic socialist France. Her appeal is strong. She’s a good orator. She’s not as good as Mélenchon, but to my mind, she has the edge of a rabble-rouser on Macron. Do the French voters want to have a rabble-rouser talking to them in round two? I don’t think they do.
Assuming Macron is elected, do you think he will have more success governing than Hollande did? The one area people seem at all optimistic about is his ability to convince the Germans to ease up on fiscal policy.
I think that is really the key. Could Hollande go to Germany and say, “Hey, let’s get loose on your fiscal policy. It would help everybody, especially the southern countries”? France, you have to remember, is partly Mediterranean and shares quite a lot in common with the southern European members. Hollande couldn’t hack it when he went to Germany and asked for a loosening up of fiscal policy. Macron, the banker, the man with the shrewd experience as a capitalist, and the weight of a good electoral victory behind him, if that turns out to be the case, is probably the person to go to the German chancellor and say, “Look, the moment’s come for a bit of loosening.” That would be amazing for France, because the insistence of the rules on public spending and budgetary overspend are very, very harsh on the French economy. In that sense, he could be the man.
Other than that, I see him as going down the same path as Hollande, and the same path is manageable. It’s a kind of immobilism, and it will work, but it will still leave us in 2022 with a National Front saying, “This is not good enough. We’re being hammered by global capitalism, and we have to come up with an insular, protectionist, anti-immigration, authoritarian response.” What will Macron do in 2022, and what will the voters have to say about it?