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Has France Really Rejected Populism?

Summary:
CAMBRIDGE – The liberal West heaved a collective sigh of relief when the results of the first round of the French presidential election came in. After leading in the polls for weeks, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front ended up in second place, while Emmanuel Macron, a centrist political independent, finished first. Macron, the fresh face of Europe’s democratic center at just 39 years old, is expected to prevail handily in the second-round runoff on May 7. With Macron’s victory in France following Dutch voters’ rejection of the right-wing populist Geert Wilders earlier this year, most observers are treating the result as another rebuke to the populist revolt that fueled the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and US President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Many seem convinced that the populist tide has crested. And yet, below the headlines, the picture is not so bright – or anti-populist. The total number of votes that went to anti-establishment candidates in the French election indicates that a latent French populist coalition could still emerge. In fact, the overall first-round vote for populists comprised almost a majority of the French electorate. Le Pen led the populist pack with an anti-immigrant, anti-European, economically nationalist platform and a message of coded racism.

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CAMBRIDGE – The liberal West heaved a collective sigh of relief when the results of the first round of the French presidential election came in. After leading in the polls for weeks, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front ended up in second place, while Emmanuel Macron, a centrist political independent, finished first. Macron, the fresh face of Europe’s democratic center at just 39 years old, is expected to prevail handily in the second-round runoff on May 7.

With Macron’s victory in France following Dutch voters’ rejection of the right-wing populist Geert Wilders earlier this year, most observers are treating the result as another rebuke to the populist revolt that fueled the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and US President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Many seem convinced that the populist tide has crested.

And yet, below the headlines, the picture is not so bright – or anti-populist. The total number of votes that went to anti-establishment candidates in the French election indicates that a latent French populist coalition could still emerge. In fact, the overall first-round vote for populists comprised almost a majority of the French electorate.

establishment and anti-establishment votes

Le Pen led the populist pack with an anti-immigrant, anti-European, economically nationalist platform and a message of coded racism. She did not fully shake the National Front’s anti-Semitic past, and in 2017, her party’s bigotry took more of an anti-Muslim form. She remains ready to pull France out of the eurozone and the EU itself, and – unlike the UK’s Brexiteers – adopt protectionist trade measures.

Add Le Pen’s 21.3% of the vote to the 19.6% captured by the far-left, anti-establishment candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and you get a very sizeable bloc of disgruntled French voters. Mélenchon has an appealing personality, a capacity for rousing rhetoric, and a knack for clever campaigning, such as using holograms of himself to address campaign rallies across France simultaneously. He far surpassed the mainstream Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon. Before the election, when polling showed Mélenchon and the other leaders within the polling margin of error, many feared that the second round could be a runoff between him and Le Pen.

Mélenchon does not share Le Pen’s anti-immigrant animosity or authoritarian tendencies. But he has been an anti-globalist tribune for many alienated workers and young people who fear for their economic future. Both he and Le Pen represent angry voters who are ready to overturn the established order. His supporters are not unlike the blue-collar Americans who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, and then for Trump in the general election. Mélenchon has so far refused...

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