LONDON - In the run-up to the first round of the French presidential elections comparisons were drawn invariably between ideological bedfellows Donald Trump and National Front leader Marine Le Pen. But the rise of the centrist Emmanuel Macron also shares some similarities with Trump’s capture of the White House — at least when it comes to having the skill to fire up an army of enthusiastic volunteers, many of whom had not previously been active in politics.
Macron’s rise — he topped the poll in yesterday’s first round featuring eleven candidates — is an object lesson for Europe’s centrist politicians in how to combat the populism of the right. The continent's centrists of both left and right were quick to congratulate Macron, with even the German government throwing caution to the winds and wishing him luck in the second round of voting.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s official spokesman Sunday wished Macron “all the best” and the German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, also hailed the results putting Macron ahead of Le Pen. “I'm sure he will sweep away the far-right, right-wing populism and the anti-Europeans in the second round," Gabriel said in a Tweet.
Like Trump, Macron has never been elected to anything. The 39-year-old former investment banker and briefly socialist economy minister — he was appointed to the post by outgoing French President Francois Hollande — has gone from being a rank outsider to the favorite to win the French presidency in the run-off next month against Le Pen.
Naysayers dismissed Macron’s bid when it launched as a “champagne bubble” that would quickly burst. It hasn’t. In less than a year the progressive maverick, who bills himself as “neither left nor right,” has rapidly built up his party En Marche! (Onwards!). It now boasts 250,000 members — twice the size of France’s establishment Socialist Party.
Since 1958, when the Fifth Republic was established by French wartime leader Gen. Charles de Gaulle, no independent candidate without electoral experience, has come near to securing the Élysée Palace.
Macron may be chalk to Trump’s cheese when it comes to ideology: he’s pro-globalization, pro-free trade deals, pro-EU and welcoming of immigrants. But like Trump and Europe’s populist right-wingers, Macron has benefited from rising public anger toward the establishment party machines. Macron on the campaign trail promised a “democratic revolution” to upset a hidebound French political system and has been every bit as dismissive of the old party dogmas as Le Pen.
When challenged on his government inexperience in the wake of the terrorist shooting on the Champs-Elysées last week, Macron parried that he’d prefer not to have any, judging by the ineffectiveness of experienced politicians in France in recent decades.
Much of his campaign has been built on the excitement of his followers as well as his own character. They have flocked to stadium rallies and organized thousands of small-scale gatherings at cafés and bistros around the country to debate policies and to engage doubters.
Regardless of whether the reforms they push are for more free trade and deregulation or protectionism and nationalism, those who position themselves as outsiders benefit from public disdain of the elites, as both Macron and Le Pen did on Sunday, humbling the country’s established parties of left and right. But whereas Le Pen’s challenge comes from the nationalist fringe, Macron has mounted a populist insurgency from the center of French politics.
In France, the establishment parties went to their radical wings to pick their presidential contenders, leaving Macron an opening in the middle. His supporters may be different from Trump’s — they are more white collar, metropolitan and educated — but like Trump’s followers they, too, have grown tired of the old party dogmas that have failed to provide stability and security.
“In France, Britain, the Netherlands, Austria and the U.S. the same people — blue- and white-collar workers, intermediate occupations and farmers — are joining the populist revolt,” according to Christophe Guilluy, author of The Twilight of Elite France (Le crépuscule de la France d’en haut). “The rift between the global market’s winners and losers has replaced the old right-left split,” he argues.
Macron’s electoral trick has been to persuade enough of the losers — mainly white-collar but to a greater extent than predicted blue-collar voters as well — that he has some pragmatic policies that will provide answers to the challenges facing France, from streamlining the pension system, freeing many households from housing tax and reducing government charges and fees and cutting back on regulations and bureaucratic red tape.
Now in the second round two very different stark views will be presented for voters to pick from: Macron’s more inclusive and cheerful view of a France that has the confidence to remain open to Europe and trade and welcomes new immigrants and those already in the country, and a more traditional view of France presented by Le Pen that points to rampant globalization as a danger to the country’s culture, jobs and security.
Victory will largely be determined by how France’s traditional working-class casts its vote.