Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France has been touted as a reversal of the populist tide in the West. But there is little reason for anti-populists to celebrate. Macron’s triumph may fuel more populism.
Why? First, his support base during the presidential elections was small –voter turnout was low – and grew primarily out of opposition to his opponent, Marine Le Pen. Le Pen drew 10.6 million votes for her right-wing populist Front National (FN) party, which means about one in three French voters backed Le Pen.
And populist candidates fared particularly well among the young; in the first round of the Présidentielle, half the voters between the ages of 18 to 24 supported either Marine Le Pen or the far-leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. These young voters are not going to go away anytime soon.
Macron has not flushed away populism; his victory has merely kept it at bay. And the fate of populism hinges on the success of Emmanuel Macron. Unless the French President manages to address populism’s underlying causes, populism is likely to resurface.
It’s doubtful that Macron's brand of centrism can present a lasting antidote to populism. Similar to Barack Obama in 2008, the newly-elected French President ran on a platform of optimism that promised hope and progress in the guise of political reform. In the United States, Obama’s hopeful vision was followed by popular disillusionment that helped pave the way for Donald Trump.
Macron’s strand of centrism is perhaps best described by what the American critical theorist Nancy Fraser has dubbed “progressive neoliberalism” in that it conflates “truncated forms of emancipation and lethal forms of financialization.” In other words, Macron has sought to appeal to voters from both sides of the political spectrum by proposing a combination of liberal and social reforms, and—perhaps more importantly—by insisting that he is both right and left (“et droite, et gauche”). This “middle of the road” strategy comes with the risk of pleasing neither and upsetting both camps.
It could even stoke further populism. In Western Europe, some of the strongest populist movements emerged in countries with centrist coalition governments. In the Netherlands for instance, the anti-Muslim populist Pim Fortuyn rose to fame in the early 2000s after eight years of “purple” coalition governments between social democrats and liberals. In general, when parties from different ideological traditions converge at the center to govern together, it frees up space at the political extremities. It also forces parties to agree on a lowest common denominator, which often disillusions voters who feel that they are not being offered a real choice.
Of course, the French political context is different because it operates under a majoritarian voting system, which generally favors bigger parties, rather than a parliamentary one, which produces smaller parties, thereby making coalition governments more likely. But these systemic differences haven’t spared France from the consequences of centrism.
For evidence, look no further than Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, who was able to advance to the second round in the 2002 presidential elections after half a decade of cohabitation featuring a conservative president and a socialist prime minister. The mushy coalition policies that grew out of this time played their part in generating a political backlash. Macron's centrism could have a similarly galvanizing effect.
The hopes and expectations for Macron’s presidency are sky high. Macron’s success depends on whether he can implement his ambitious agenda. This will prove challenging—not in the least because he is backed by an inexperienced parliament composed of many political novices. And even if he pushes through legislation, it’s possible his reforms will simply reinforce the status quo. Although he presented himself as an outsider to voters, it’s worth remembering that he served two years as economy minister under his predecessor, François Hollande.
If he finds a way to succeed, it wouldn’t be the first time that Macron has surprised. If there is anything we can conclude from recent years, it is that electoral politics in Western democracies have become less predictable.
This article is published as part of a collaboration with Zocalo Public Square, where a version of it originally appeared.