Sunday, 7 May, the French elected Emmanuel Macron as president with 66% of the vote. Unlike in the United States or Britain, where white nationalism triumphed in the presidential and Brexit votes, the French emphatically rejected Marine Le Pen’s fear mongering and bigotry. Macron was a relatively weak candidate. He was politically hobbled by his service in Francois Hollande’s deeply unpopular administration, and he built his campaign without the support of an established party. Le Pen is an experienced campaigner and skilled debater, and she probably did as well as any candidate in France could do who staked out those extreme positions.
Le Pen’s 34% was almost double what her father, Jean-Marie, got when he made it to the second round of the 2002 presidential election. Nevertheless, her 34% was far less than Trump’s share of the American vote or the 46% Norbert Hofer, the Austrian far right presidential candidate, received in 2016. Thus, we are left with the question, why is France different? I think there are three ways in which France is unusual.
First, France is secular. Even Le Pen spoke clearly in favor of laïcité, the principle that the French government should not play a role in religion, and more importantly that churches should have no influence over government policies. Le Pen used laïcité to attack what she falsely claimed was Islamic power in France, but in so doing she spoke clearly in favor of secularism which in her campaign, like Macron’s and those of the candidates who lost in the first round except for François
Fillon, included support for legal abortion and same sex rights including marriage. Christian religious conservatism serves as a basis for racial and national identity and builds support for broader platforms of rightwing extremism in the U.S., Austria, Spain, and Italy, as well as Poland and Russia. Islamic fundamentalism plays the same role in the few majority Muslim countries with elections. And of course the Hindu nationalist BJP in India has built its electoral victories on anti-Muslim rhetoric and its not so subtle encouragement of vigilante violence. This election demonstrates that secularism remains firmly supported by the vast majority of French voters. Fillon’s inability to advance into the final round, despite his efforts to place religious conservatism at the center of his campaign, shows the limits of that appeal in France.
Second, France’s generous welfare state remains intact. France spent 31.5% of its GDP on social expenditures in 2016. This means that there is little political space for candidates or parties to claim that immigrants are depriving other French people of the benefits of citizenship. Thus, Le Pen’s support was confined largely to regions where deindustrialization has created high unemployment. Voters in those areas were vulnerable to the false argument that they had lost their jobs to immigrants. The same could not be said about health care, education, maternity leave and the broad array of benefits all French continue to receive. In contrast, the nationalist right has won its greatest victories in the two Anglo countries with the stingiest social programs, the U.S. and Britain. Absolute declines in already meager benefits created resentments that propelled Trump and Brexit to victory.
Third, France has a long history of immigration and successful assimilation. The recent wave of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa was preceded by immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, who in past centuries appeared as alien and uncivilized to the existing residents of France as do the new arrivals. Enough French have confidence that assimilation will work again and that laïcité and time will temper the strong Islamism some but not most recent immigrants bring with them. The U.S. too has a powerful history of successful immigration. However, America’s equally long and even more powerful history of racism creates a permanent opening for bigots like Trump to present current immigrants, who are almost entirely from Latin America, Asia and Africa, as alien. Again this ignores the ways in which the then largely Protestant population of the U.S. viewed nineteenth century immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. All the EU countries besides France have little experience with immigration before the current wave. Indeed, those countries were mainly sources of emigration to North America.
Clearly, any one of these three factors is not enough to immunize a nation against rightwing and racist politics. Denmark, for example, has generous social benefits and is largely secular, but with no history of immigration it gave an eighth of its votes to the Danish People’s Party in 2015. So far, generous social benefits appear to be the most powerful antidote to extremism and bigotry. For that reason, new French president Macron’s campaign proposals to cut social programs and make French workers more vulnerable to dismissals could, if enacted, create a new opening for the National Front in future elections.
Macron, in essence, is undertaking a huge gamble. Against most past experience, he hopes his efforts to implement neoliberal policies will boost the French economy enough that unemployment will significantly decline and more voters will feel better off as a result of the economic expansion than will lose from benefit cuts. That is the same calculation Bill Clinton and, to a lesser degree, Obama made in the U.S. and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made in Britain. In both those countries the gamble failed and left us with Trump and Brexit.
France begins with a far more robust government sector than the U.S. or Britain, so Macron’s cuts probably will end up being highly limited. However, it is unlikely that he will be able to significantly stimulate the French economy especially as global economic growth is likely to remain weak. In five years, when Macron comes up for reelection, we will learn if the three pillars of French political moderation will be enough to again block the National Front or a new extremist party.