A big, but still not decisive, victory for European liberalism.
Europe can finally breathe out.
Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker with Rothschild who briefly served as Francois Hollande’s economy minister, has been elected president of France for the next five years.
According to preliminary figures, he trounced the far right Front National candidate Marine Le Pen by a margin of 65.8% to 34.2%—almost two to one—to become the youngest leader of France in over 140 years. With that result, France has reaffirmed its commitment to liberalism and the European Union, despite the surge in Islamist atrocities on French soil in recent years, and despite the failure of mainstream parties to tackle the chronic problems of unemployment and budget deficits.
Here’s what you need to know about the most important election in the heart of Europe in years.
1. Populism Postponed, not Cancelled
As we argued last week, this is a major victory for Europe’s mainstream, but it’s not a final one. While this has often been boiled down to a battle of personalities, the fact is that unemployment has been falling for over a year, while growth has finally taken root. Business surveys suggest the economy is growing at its fastest rate in six years. That has drained protest votes away from Le Pen. The 21.3% she received in the first round two weeks ago was already 3.5% less than the 24.8% her party got in elections to the EU Parliament in 2014. The 2014 result, in hindsight, will go down as the post-crisis cyclical peak for the FN. But growth is cyclical, and many of the factors underpinning support for the far right and far left—a resentment of globalization, a fear of Islamism, and much of the unemployment problem, are structural. Le Pen, who still got nearly double the 17.8% her father Jean-Marie got in the 2002 run-off, can still plausibly argue that the FN is on an upward long-term trajectory.
2. The French Exception
The two great populist successes of 2016, the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum, both owed much to older voters. Over 65s voted for Trump by a margin of eight percentage points (54%-46%), and voted for Brexit by a thumping 20-point margin (60%-40%). By contrast, the young were more inclined to vote for Le Pen than any other age group, Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk pointed out. According to figures cited by Mounk, the gray vote split 80%-20% in favor of Macron.
3. Support for the Euro
Part of retirees’ fear of Le Pen was doubtless tied to her promises to withdraw from the euro and reintroduce the franc (albeit in a muddled way which even she probably didn’t understand). The 80%-20% split in the old vote against Le Pen was, coincidentally, exactly the same as produced when pollster Opinion-Way.fr asked whether her promises on pulling out of the Euro were realistic. ‘Frexit’ would have meant less spending power and more inflation for a demographic that, as everywhere in the advanced world, is exerting a huge and growing influence on election results. Ultimately, French voters didn’t think a cheaper, freer currency would solve their problems any more than Greece’s did. Which is hardly surprising when 48% of your imports come from the Eurozone.
4. Macron is a quick learner
After the first round of voting, Macron was slammed for holding a big party in an upscale Paris restaurant after making it through to the run-off. To many, that suggested he was already thinking victory was a nailed-on certainty. He had good reason to, since every opinion poll for months had shown him clearly beating Le Pen, but nobody likes to be taken for granted, and his victory speech on Sunday was a lot more humble. Cynics would say it also reflected the fact that he now really has to start being nice to his opponents, because his movement, En Marche!, is by no means guaranteed to do as well in elections to the Assembly in June. And without a reliable majority in parliament, Macron will struggle to enact the reforms needed to kill off the extremist menace for good.
5. Voters are wising up to fake news
One unambiguously good piece of news out of the vote is that French voters have been largely immune to a constant barrage of fake news, the overwhelming majority of which was aimed at discrediting Macron. Allegations of secret homosexuality and clandestine bank accounts in the Bahamas gained ample space in the French Internet, but failed to gain traction. A final ham-fisted attempt to embarrass Macron with a trove of what purported to be hacked e-mails (first indications suggest the trail leads back – again – to Russia) only broke an hour or two before the traditional ban on reporting election-relevant news descended. By contrast, a targeted campaign of leaks from a largely left-leaning judiciary discrediting the establishment center-right candidate Francois Fillon succeeded spectacularly, not least because they appeared to be better founded in fact. The moral appears to be that democracy in France will be safe as long as the establishment does a more professional job of manipulating public opinion than the anti-establishment.