In normal times, a French presidential election that left the Front National with 21 per cent of the vote, put a 39-year-old novice within striking distance of the Élysée Palace and confirmed the collapse of the two blocs that have dominated the country’s postwar politics would be a seismic event. But these are not normal times. The electoral shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump upended what once seemed iron laws of western politics while eroding faith in opinion polls and leaving mainstream leaders spooked by the prospect of a nationalist wave.
Against that background, the first round result in France’s election has been greeted with calm in the markets and undisguised relief in capitals across Europe. The polls had accurately predicted that the youthful centrist Emmanuel Macron would narrowly beat Marine Le Pen of the Front National. If turnout holds up and supporters of the defeated candidates unite behind him in the second round on May 7th, the same polls suggest, Macron will win comfortably.
French voters have rejected the traditional left-right cleavage. Instead their choice next month will be one that increasingly defines western politics. Nationalist or internationalist. Inward-looking or globally-minded. Open or closed. With Macron and Le Pen those battlelines could hardly be more clearly drawn. The former champions free trade, European integration and a liberal social agenda. The latter espouses protectionism, drastic immigration cuts, a “French-first” social welfare policy and a return to the franc. Even more than usual, then, the result on May 7th will have an impact far beyond France’s borders.
While Le Pen’s strong showing must serve as a warning against complacency, Sunday’s result should nonetheless dispel some of the fatalism that has consumed the progressive mainstream in Europe. English nationalism is on the rise and right-wing populists are in power in Poland and Hungary. But polls suggest Angela Merkel is still on course for re-election in September, while recent elections in Austria and the Netherlands have put a brake on the advance of the nationalist right in both countries. Ireland and the rest of Europe must hope that a convincing victory for Macron can do the same in France.