Why Le Pen, and populists, see Sunday loss as another step forward

Marine Le Pen seemed to lose in a landslide, but fully two-thirds of eligible French voters did not vote for Emmanuel Macron, a populist rejection of the status quo that fits the trend experts see in other democracies in this 'new political era.'

Charles Platiau/Reuters
Marine Le Pen greets supporters at the Chalet du Lac in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris after her defeat in the second round of the 2017 French presidential election, France, May 7, 2017.

The scale of her defeat could scarcely have been more comprehensive. Marine le Pen won little more than half the votes that her rival, Emmanuel Macron, garnered in Sunday’s French presidential election.

So why were so many of the far-right leader’s supporters and advisers so cheerful about the election results? Because her one-third share of the vote, they say, is a sign that the international wave of populism that has rolled through the US and Europe has not yet crested.

And they may be right, analysts say.

“The threat to liberal democracy is clearly still there,” says Yascha Mounk, a German-born politics teacher at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Protectionist, anti-immigrant, and illiberal parties such as Ms. Le Pen’s National Front (FN) are now the second largest parties in France, Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands.

Such parties are growing, and say they have their eyes on greater prizes.

“These elections were a decisive new stage in our development, another step toward electoral success,” FN secretary general Nicolas Bay said Monday morning.

Simply the fact that neither of the traditionally dominant parties in France, on the center left and center right, made it through to the second round of the presidential elections showed “a rupture of the traditional political establishment,” says John Short, an expert on globalization at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Mr. Short's institution.]

Like Donald Trump, both Le Pen – who campaigned hard against “the system” – and Mr. Macron, who launched his party only one year ago and had never been elected to any office before Sunday, ran as outsiders.

“The French results fit the trend we have seen” in last June’s British vote to leave the European Union and in President Trump’s election, of voters voicing “their economic pain, their cultural uncertainty, and their political anger at the system,” says Professor Short.

Rejection of status quo

Macron may have won by a landslide, but many voted for him only to make sure that Le Pen, whose angry nationalism has been widely denounced as racism, would not win. And many voters simply did not go to the polls, equally repelled by Macron’s free market, pro-European Union platform and by the National Front’s extremist message.

In a striking rejection of the status quo, 67 percent of eligible French voters either voted for Le Pen, or abstained, or spoiled their ballot papers in protest.

If the first round of the election had buried the old system with the collapse of the two biggest parties, Le Pen said in her brief concession speech Sunday night, the second round had fashioned “a major political restructuring around the split between patriots and globalists.”

She, of course, being a “patriot.”

That will be a tough corner for Macron to fight. Over half the voters in the first round of the French elections chose anti-European Union, anti-globalization candidates.

“We are in a new political era,” argues the UMBC’s Short. “There is no glib, easy defense of globalization or of multiculturalism any more. Politicians have to be aware of the new sensibilities that have been brought to the surface.”

Labor market is the 'main driver'

From this perspective, Macron is making the right noises.

“I know there is anger, anxiety, doubt,” he said Sunday evening in a victory speech. “It is my responsibility to listen to that, and to protect the weakest.”

He told his supporters later that he knew many people had “voted out of anger and distress. I respect that. But I will do everything I can over the next five years to make sure they have no reason to vote for extremes” in the next presidential elections in 2022.

If he fails, warns Jean-Christophe Lagarde, head of France’s centrist Union of Democrats and Independents, “our democracy will be in danger again.”

Key to the new president’s goal will be creating jobs, in a country where unemployment has hovered around 10 percent for the past five years and where youth unemployment has hit 25 percent. It is even worse in Spain and Greece.

Researchers in Germany found in 2016 that “the main driver” of surges in votes for populist right wing parties is the labor market, says Robert Gold, an economist at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy and one of the researchers who carried out the study.

When globalization kills jobs in industrialized countries by shifting them to countries where wages are lower, or when robots take over manual work, governments must take care of the losers with more than social security and unemployment benefits, Dr. Gold argues.

“People need more than that,” he says. “They need prospects and a chance to make their living again.” That means a much sharper focus on retraining so that laid off workers find it easier to move into new jobs.

'They are not all racists'

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, makes a similar point in a recent opinion piece published by the international nonprofit Project Syndicate.

“In the absence of … strong social welfare programs, job retraining, and other forms of assistance to individuals and communities left behind by globalization, Trumpian politicians may become a permanent feature of the landscape” in world politics, he writes.

At the same time, says Short, political leaders anxious to preserve Western liberal values have to be less dismissive of citizens’ fears about immigration – a particularly sensitive issue in Europe. “You cannot just use diversity as an easy slogan to shut up people with concerns,” he says. “They are not all racists.”

Sunday’s election results were “good news but qualified good news,” says Harvard’s Dr. Mounk. “The forces of liberal democracy can win against this threat,” but Le Pen won twice as many votes as her father did in 2002 when he reached the second round of presidential elections, he points out.

To stem the populist tide, he says, it will take improved living standards and more successful ways of handling ethnic and racial relations than governments have yet managed.

“It means making people satisfied with their lives and with their political systems,” Mounk argues. “It is the challenge of a whole political generation.”

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