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Has France Really Rejected Populism?

CAMBRIDGE – The liberal West heaved a collective sigh of relief when the results of the first round of the French presidential election came in. After leading in the polls for weeks, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front ended up in second place, while Emmanuel Macron, a centrist political independent, finished first. Macron, the fresh face of Europe’s democratic center at just 39 years old, is expected to prevail handily in the second-round runoff on May 7.

With Macron’s victory in France following Dutch voters’ rejection of the right-wing populist Geert Wilders earlier this year, most observers are treating the result as another rebuke to the populist revolt that fueled the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and US President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Many seem convinced that the populist tide has crested.

And yet, below the headlines, the picture is not so bright – or anti-populist. The total number of votes that went to anti-establishment candidates in the French election indicates that a latent French populist coalition could still emerge. In fact, the overall first-round vote for populists comprised almost a majority of the French electorate.

establishment and anti-establishment votes

Le Pen led the populist pack with an anti-immigrant, anti-European, economically nationalist platform and a message of coded racism. She did not fully shake the National Front’s anti-Semitic past, and in 2017, her party’s bigotry took more of an anti-Muslim form. She remains ready to pull France out of the eurozone and the EU itself, and – unlike the UK’s Brexiteers – adopt protectionist trade measures.

Add Le Pen’s 21.3% of the vote to the 19.6% captured by the far-left, anti-establishment candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and you get a very sizeable bloc of disgruntled French voters. Mélenchon has an appealing personality, a capacity for rousing rhetoric, and a knack for clever campaigning, such as using holograms of himself to address campaign rallies across France simultaneously. He far surpassed the mainstream Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon. Before the election, when polling showed Mélenchon and the other leaders within the polling margin of error, many feared that the second round could be a runoff between him and Le Pen.

Mélenchon does not share Le Pen’s anti-immigrant animosity or authoritarian tendencies. But he has been an anti-globalist tribune for many alienated workers and young people who fear for their economic future. Both he and Le Pen represent angry voters who are ready to overturn the established order. His supporters are not unlike the blue-collar Americans who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, and then for Trump in the general election. Mélenchon has so far refused to endorse Macron for the second round.

If you now add to Le Pen and Mélenchon’s combined 40.9% of the vote the totals for minor far-right and anti-capitalist parties, including the Communist Party, the percentage of anti-system voters reaches the upper 40s. The headlines declaring victory for pro-European liberal democracy fail to highlight how narrow that victory actually was. The truth is that France has a highly populist electorate: close to half of French citizens cast a vote on April 23 to disrupt the status quo.

Once again, how votes translate into electoral decisions looms large. In last year’s US presidential election, Hillary Clinton won the popular-vote count by several million votes, but needed another 100,000 votes across Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan to win the Electoral College. In France this year, the total share of anti-establishment voters is similar to Trump’s own share of the popular vote in the US, but because of the configuration of the candidates and differences in election rules, the populist, anti-trade candidates will lose in France.

This is not just a modern quirk: in the US presidential election of 1860 – the most consequential in American history – Abraham Lincoln received 39.9% of the vote, with the other votes going to parties that were not anti-slavery. But the rules of the election made him the clear winner; indeed, he would have won, even if the other parties’ votes had been aggregated behind a single candidate. Nobel Prizes have gone to academics who have shown how an electorate’s preferences can lead to sharply differing outcomes, depending on how votes are aggregated into decision rules.

In France, a slight first-round shift of just a few percentage points away from Macron and toward Mélenchon would have resulted in a fully anti-establishment runoff for the French presidency. Moreover, if a single candidate had corralled economic-nationalist and anti-immigrant voters, as Trump did with working- and lower-middle-class voters in the US, that candidate would have won the first round – and would have been in a strong position to claim the presidency in the second round.

Even though the French electorate rejected anti-immigrant, anti-trade, anti-finance, and anti-globalist policies this time around, the fact remains that, beneath the surface of France’s election result is a potential populist coalition. It is too early for those celebrating the triumph of liberal democracy to declare victory.

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