France’s election reveals a new political divide

True to the spirit of 1789, the revolutionary French are a step ahead of everyone else. On Sunday, they became the first large Western country to ditch, in a major election, the center-right/center-left political-party structure that has dominated European politics since the Second World War. Neither Emmanuel Macron nor Marine Le Pen, the two candidates who emerged from the first round of voting for the French presidency, belongs to the old gauche or the old droite. Neither will have a major parliamentary party behind his or her program. Neither, as president, would represent a continuation of the status quo.

If the most important political divide, in France as almost everywhere else, was once over the size of the state, the new political divide is not really about economics at all. It is about different visions of the identity of France itself. Le Pen, best described as a national socialist, would like to take France out of international institutions, including both the European Union and NATO; block borders; curtail trade; and impose quasi-Marxist state-dominated economics. Her voters are pessimistic about the present and nostalgic for a different France. Her most important foreign ally is Vladimir Putin, whose money funded her campaign, but in recent days President Trump has made positive noises about her, too. Her party, the National Front, has been part of French politics for decades, and has been historically noisy in its opposition to immigration.

On the other side is Macron, whose brand-new movement, En Marche — the name means “forward” — represents the brand-new radical center. Macron rejects political branding: “Honesty compels me to say that I am not a socialist,” he has said, despite having served in a Socialist Party government. He embraces markets, but says he believes in “collective solidarity.” His voters are more optimistic about the future, they support the European Union, they embrace France’s integration with the rest of the continent and the world: “You are the new face of French hope,” Macron told them in his victory speech Sunday night. Though Macron favors strong external borders of the European Union, he expresses no special dislike of immigrants. The foreign politician he most resembles is the young Tony Blair, who also put together a centrist coalition, though it wasn’t called that at the time.

In this sense, the second round of France’s election has a clear agenda: open vs. closed, integrationist vs. isolationist, future vs. past. Unlike her father, who won 18 percent in the second round of the presidential election in 2002, Marine Le Pen is expected to win more, maybe much more, in the May 7 runoff. Though she is far behind Macron right now, a fluke victory cannot be excluded. There is a part of the old left, including those who voted for the Trotskyist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who sympathize with her objections to trade, bankers and international business; there is a part of the old right, including those who voted for François Fillon, who prefer her ostentatious endorsement of “traditional values.”

There are many who, confused by the new political divide, will abstain. The smear campaign that will now be aimed at Macron — backed by Russian, alt-right and pro-Trump trolls — is going to be unparalleled in its viciousness. It may well put people off voting altogether.

Whatever the final result, Le Pen and her party will not go away. They stand for a set of feelings that are real, that exist in every Western country, and that are now best fought openly, point by point, argument by argument — for they pose a genuine and powerful threat to liberal democracy as we know it. Though the origins of the National Front are indeed fascist — its founders included Vichy sympathizers — it is no good dismissing her candidacy on those grounds. The task now, for Macron and those who will now imitate him, is to find solutions for the many people who reject his “open” politics and his centrist vision.

Security for the fearful; safety for those who feel threatened, whether by immigration or unemployment; dynamism for static economies. On Sunday night, Le Pen called on French “patriots” to support her in the second round. In response, Macron must now define new forms of patriotism, and new forms of solidarity, for those in France who want to remain French but embrace the world.

Anne Applebaum writes a biweekly foreign affairs column for The Washington Post.

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