PARIS – Relief and pride are the main emotions many French citizens are feeling after the first round of the French presidential election, in which Emmanuel Macron finished first. For once, the pollsters were right: the two favored candidates – Macron and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen – advanced to the second-round runoff on May 7. Gone is the sense of anxiety that had attended the weeks, days, and hours before the election, owing to fears that France would wake up to a second-round choice between the far-right Le Pen and the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Many observers saw France as economically, socially, and politically vulnerable – even more so than the United Kingdom, the United States, or Germany – to such a choice. After the UK’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, surely this was Le Pen’s window of opportunity. Some of us, only half-jokingly, have even mused about where we would flee if Le Pen won. Between a Great Britain that is leaving the European Union, and a US under Trump, there are few good options.
Fortunately, reason and hope prevailed over anger and fear, and French citizens defied those who warned that populism might triumph in the land of the French Revolution. While a Le Pen victory is technically possible, the composition of the French electorate makes it highly unlikely. Very few of Mélenchon’s leftist voters will cross over to the extreme right. And while some of the center-right candidate François Fillon’s supporters may now vote for Le Pen, it will not be enough to sway the election in her favor.
In other words, the French exception is alive and well. France’s contrarian electorate has demonstrated to the world – and especially to the Anglo-Saxon world – that one need not betray one’s defining values to defeat populism. Despite a recent wave of terror attacks, the French have proved their resilience against the politics of fear. And even with Euroskepticism on the rise, the pro-European candidate, Macron, received more votes than any other.