clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

4 winners and 5 losers from the French election

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Emmanuel Macron, a center-left technocrat from the new En Marche party, won the French election on Sunday — beating the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen by a decisive 65.5 percent to 34.5 percent. But what does this mean for France, Europe, and the rest of the world?

A lot, actually. The French election was hugely significant for the country’s future as well, centering on fundamental value questions like tolerance and French identity. It was also full of twists and turns, ranging from Le Pen resigning from the leadership of the National Front to a last-minute release of Macron’s emails (allegedly stolen by Russian hackers).

The outcome also mattered a great deal globally, affecting both some of the world’s most vulnerable (immigrants and refugees) and the powerful (Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin). Macron’s victory isn’t just a win for supporters of the European Union and social tolerance; it suggests a path forward for politicians who want to stem the rising far-right tide across the West.

Understanding what happened in this election, then, requires going well beyond the topline numbers. What follows is an attempt to figure out what happened in detail — who ended Sunday better off than they were before, and who’s in a worse place.

Winner: Emmanuel Macron

Emmanuel Macron Celebrates His Presidential Election Victory At Le Louvre In Paris (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Former banker Macron is, of course, the obvious winner. But the depth and scale of his victory goes well beyond merely coming out on top of the polls. It’s been underplayed, because of his fairly conventional policy views, but the rise of Emmanuel Macron is really one of the most striking political stories of the 21st century.

Less than a year ago, Macron was the economics minister in President François Hollande’s extraordinarily unpopular Socialist government — about 80 percent of the French public disapproved of Hollande’s performance at the time. In August, Macron resigned to form his own new party, En Marche, and launch an independent bid for the presidency.

At the time, this was seen as the height of hubris. France is “a country in which the center-left and center-right alternation was no less entrenched than in the United States,” Harvard scholar Yascha Mounk tells me. Macron’s decision was something like Obama’s Treasury secretary quitting in late 2015 to mount a third-party presidential campaign, something that would — rightfully — have been seen as an absurd vanity project.

Moreover, Macron’s platform seemed totally out of step with the times. In the year of Brexit and Trump, a time when anti-immigrant populists had surged in the polls basically everywhere in Europe, Macron ran on a platform of welcoming immigrants and deeper integration into the EU.

He sailed straight into the prevailing headwinds of the time at the helm of a third party in a two-party system — and won. Not only did he win, but he won by the second-largest margin in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. Polls now suggest that En Marche will win a plurality of seats in June’s legislative election, which could set up Macron to actually implement his agenda for France (as in the US, presidents are limited without sufficient legislative support).

Macron’s rise — the invention of a successful third party, in a long-stable two-party system, in less than a year — is one of the most astonishing acts of political entrepreneurship in modern history.

Winner: Europe

Presidential Candidate Emmanuel Macron Holds His Electoral Evening At Le Louvre  In Paris (David Ramos/Getty Images)

The key factor that distinguished Macron from his opponents was his championing of social tolerance and the European Union. This was true not only of Le Pen but also of his mainstream opponents in the first round — the center-left Socialists and center-right Republicans — who were afraid to forthrightly defend France’s leading role in the EU. Macron, by contrast, had literally waved the EU flag at campaign rallies.

“Macron won with an uncompromising pro-multicultural and pro-EU campaign. Something neither [Socialists] nor Republicans dared,” Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies European politics, tweeted.

This matters on two levels. The first, and the most obvious, is policy. President-elect Macron has proposed a series of policies for deepening EU integration, perhaps most boldly advocating a shared Europe-wide treasury with control over fiscal policy. Whether or not he actually manages to act on his ideas — it will be hard — having him in the Elysée advocating for integration is a huge win for fans of a united Europe, particularly given the panic created by the prospect of a Le Pen victory.

“I never thought that in my lifetime I could believe that the European Union will be threatened, but it is threatened,” Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the US, said in a late April appearance on NPR. “The far-right is not a usual political party. It's something totally a question of society, a question of civilization.”

The second level is political.

Around the continent, establishment candidates have been struggling to find an effective response to the far right. Some, like Republican first-round candidate François Fillon, have tried a “radical right light” stance critical of the EU and immigration that doesn’t go as far as their far-right competitors. Others, like the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn, have tried focusing on a populist economic message designed to counter the perceived root causes of the far right’s rise. Neither strategy has been particularly effective.

Macron’s victory shows there’s a third way — that if mainstream candidates double down on their own values, and defend the European project rather than apologizing for it, they can rally voters who believe in European integration and tolerance. Macron took on the far right’s message directly, on its core issues — and he won.

Winner: immigrants and refugees

Large Scale Demolition Of The Calais Migrant Camp Begins
Migrants in France.
(Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Marine Le Pen advocated for an 80 percent cut in legal immigration to France. She wanted to remove France from the EU’s Schengen agreement, which enables passport-free movement through much of Europe. She wanted to change French law to give preference to citizens over noncitizens in hiring and welfare, and ban refugees living in France from applying for asylum. She has proposed banning headscarves in public places and stripping citizenship from French Muslims who endorse “radical” ideas.

None of these things are going to happen, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Macron has called on France to welcome immigrants and refugees. He praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open borders response to the refugee crisis, saying it “saved our collective dignity.” He has defended Islam against French critics, saying "no religion is a problem in France today.” He even wants to expand immigration, promising to streamline the visa application process to encourage migration and to expand French-language training for migrants.

The big policy winners from this election, then, are people who want to move to France — those fleeing persecution and war — and French minorities, most notably Muslims. On these issues, France is about to head in the precise opposition direction from the United States and United Kingdom.

Winner: the National Front

French Presidential Candidate Marine Le Pen Holds A Rally Meeting In Marseille (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

In a certain sense, the French far right won just by making it into the second round.

When Le Pen’s father, former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it into the 2002 second round in a shocker, he won a mere 18 percent of the vote. Marine nearly doubled her father’s vote share, showing that far-right ideas are much more acceptable in France than they were 15 years ago.

This is the result (in part) of a long-running effort on the younger Le Pen’s part to move the party into the political mainstream. She attempted to clamp down on the more overt racism and anti-Semitism that marked the party under her father’s leadership, refashioning the FN as a champion of the French working class against the threat posed by mass immigration and the EU. Her improvement over her father’s electoral mark 15 years ago shows how successful the campaign to mainstream the party has become.

What’s more, you saw the French center-right — most notably Fillon himself — using hostile, FN-style rhetoric about immigrants during the first round. Though Le Pen’s supporters have to be disappointed, this election is proof positive that their ideas have more purchase in France than ever before.

“Most importantly, [the election] is another step in slow & steady electoral rise & political normalization of populist radical right,” Mudde writes.

Loser: Marine Le Pen

Presidential Candidate Marine Le Pen Holds Her Electoral Evening At Chalet Du Lac In Paris (Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)

Le Pen is a victim of her own party’s expectations.

Realistically, a Trump- or Brexit-like surprise was never in the cards. Poll averages consistently showed Le Pen down by around 20 points. But those numbers, especially given the precedent set by US and British elections, had Le Pen supporters hoping for a much narrower defeat. A 55-45 margin, or even 58-42, would have demonstrated an astonishing amount of political support for ideas that as recently as 15 years ago were seen as unacceptable by virtually everyone in French politics. Such a defeat would have rendered Le Pen a potent force in French politics in the coming years, and started archenemy Macron off on a weak footing.

Instead, Le Pen lost by 65.5 to 34.5 — a whopping 31-point margin, well worse than what polls were predicting. In fact, early polls for this election two years ago had her polling at roughly this margin in the first round. This suggests that the party has declined at least somewhat since 2015, which would make sense, as that’s when the refugee crisis was at the height of its public attention (which spiked anti-immigrant sentiment Europe-wide).

And Le Pen actually got fewer votes than there were abstentions and blank ballots, arguably making her the third-place finisher. She lost to both Macron and literally nobody.

So while Le Pen’s ideas are more popular than they’ve ever been, they’re still not popular enough to capture the French presidency. She also lost to a pro-European, pro-immigrant former banker — someone that exemplified everything her base hated. Now that base is going to be looking for something to blame, putting Le Pen’s future in French politics in jeopardy.

“Marine Le Pen has one month to regain her dominant position within FN. Parliamentary elections of June will be crucial,” Mudde writes. “She will have to win significant number of seats to silence critics within FN. Much dissatisfaction with her distancing from party.”

Loser: Donald Trump

I have a message for you guys.

Nai-post ni Emmanuel Macron noong Huwebes, Pebrero 9, 2017

President Trump all but endorsed Marine Le Pen. In an interview with the Associated Press in April, Trump called the candidate “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France [a reference to Islamist terrorism].”


President-elect Macron released two — 2! — videos starring former President Barack Obama, one of which was a formal Obama endorsement. He also released a web ad bashing Trump’s policies on climate change, even promising to give American climate scientists French visas.

“I do know how your new president now has decided to jeopardize your budget, your initiatives,” Macron says in the ad (embedded above). “Please, come to France — you are welcome here.”

Clearly, these two men don’t just disagree with each other — they positioned each other as opposites during the campaign. This will make US-French relations extremely awkward in the coming months.

It also suggests there’s an incipient backlash against Trump among European voters.

Surveys of European public opinion and studies of European newspapers find broad and deep opposition to the new American president among continental voters. Centrist candidates, like Macron and German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, have been going campaigning against the local far right by invoking the specter of the widely disliked US president. The perception that a far-right victory at home would be like a Trump victory could very well be doing some damage, at least at the margins, to far-right leaders like Le Pen.

Loser: Polls

The polling average on the eve of the election.
(HuffPost Pollster)

Polls suggested Macron was going to win. Macron won. Therefore, the polls were right — yeah? No.

The polls were actually much further off in the French election than they were with Brexit and Trump. The polling averages had Macron at about a 22-point victory in the second round, when he actually won by 31. By contrast, the polls only missed the actual national margin in the US election by about 2 points and Brexit votes by about 4. Because those elections were closer, and the error led pollsters to call the election incorrectly, the errors seemed much more significant — even when, mathematically, the pollsters missed by a smaller margin than in France. (The state polls in the US were a different story, which arguably mattered more given the Electoral College.)

This would be a minor point, of interest solely to French politics obsessives — except that it’s part of a Europe-wide pattern. In recent elections like December’s presidential vote in Austria and the recent Dutch parliamentary elections, pollsters seem to be systematically overestimating the strength of far-right parties.

“[This is] the 6th straight European election, counting both rounds in France, where the nationalist underperformed polls,” Nate Silver tweeted.

There are plenty of reasons why this could be, ranging from technical errors (like sampling the wrong voters) to the aforementioned Trump effect. It also doesn’t mean that the European far right is beaten or in decline — not by a long shot.

But it does suggest that the far right may be weaker than their current poll numbers in various European countries suggest.

Loser: the populist left

French Presidential Election 2012- Front De Gauche Party Awaiting For Election Results
Mélenchon supporters rally in the first round.
(Julien M. Hekimian/Getty Images)

One of the surprise stories of the first round was the rise of far-left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélenchon, who married proposals like a 100 percent tax on marginal incomes over 400,000 with arguments that the EU was the tool of capitalist interests, won 19.5 percent of the vote — basically tying Fillon for third place.

Mélenchon was the only first-round loser not to endorse Macron in the second round, seeing him as a representative of finance capital and an enemy of the welfare state. This is dubiously true, but there were real fears that Mélenchon’s non-endorsement would threaten Macron’s standing in the race.

This didn’t happen. Macron won more than 50 percent of Mélenchon’s first-round voters, and while a third of his voters abstained, it didn’t appear to significantly affect Macron’s comfortable margin. There just didn’t seem to be a ton of appetite for Mélenchon’s argument that from a left-wing point of view, Macron and Le Pen were similar evils.

Macron’s victory is also a defeat for the broader far-left theory of politics. There’s a rising argument around the West, among supporters of leaders like Bernie Sanders and the UK’s Corbyn, that only assertive left-wing populism can address the kind of “economic anxiety” that leads working-class voters to back the far right.

Macron was not a left-wing populist. He’s a centrist on economic issues whose candidacy was defined principally by his strong stance on social issues. Yet he dealt the most decisive defeat to the far right that we’ve seen in the past two years, just as polls for the UK election show Corybn’s Labour Party heading for a defeat of historic proportions. This is more evidence that left-wing populism may not be the most effective response to right-wing populism, and that the “neoliberal” center-left is very far from dead.

Loser: Vladimir Putin

Russian President Putin Attends Russian-Japanese Business Dialogue In Tokyo (Ma Ping/Pool/Getty Images)

Putin tried to rerun his strategy for the US election in France, only more so.

Le Pen was an explicitly pro-Russia candidate, who had gone so far as to say Putin’s annexation of Crimea was legal. Putin, in turn, literally funded Le Pen’s campaign. At the last minute, hacked personal emails from Macron’s account appeared on the internet. Initial reports suggest they were stolen by Russia-linked hackers.

Le Pen lost anyway. Several leading French news outlets, unlike American ones, refused to cover the emails, seeing it as aiding and abetting cybercrime — showing one way to defuse Putin’s strategy of weaponizing the Western press. It shows there are limits to how successful Russian meddling in Western elections can be.

Now Putin has to deal with a France led by about as pro-European and pro-NATO a candidate as you can imagine, someone who has promised to maintain sanctions on Russia and pledges to increase French defense spending to 2 percent of GDP. It’s the worst possible outcome for the Russian leader — and, worse, a predictably bad outcome. It shows Putin was never the all-powerful, genius chess master that some in the international press made him out to be.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.