Mainstream Europe is thinking the worst is over after the first round of the French presidential elections on Sunday. Independent-centrist Emmanuel Macron performed well enough to create a broad expectation that he will defeat far-right candidate Marine Le Pen when the runoff is held in two weeks. Populism in Europe appears to have reached its high-water mark after recent electoral defeats for far-right populists in the Netherlands, and Austria, as well as the continuing decline of far-right political fortunes in Germany. Supporters of the European Union appear ready to write off the populist surge that has brought about Britain’s exit from the EU, and Donald Trump’s rise to the White House.
The folks in Brussels, as well as their supporters around Europe, may have the cart before the horse.
The collapse of the traditional parties in this election serves as a blunt confirmation that France is in the midst of a political renewal. Macron and Le Pen’s emergence show that a wide majority of French citizens are dissatisfied with the political system and eager for a change.
While Macron is positioned as a reformer, a flurry of questions and concern surrounds him. As a former investment banker, there is skepticism that he can address the angst and concerns of ordinary working class citizens. His political past is attached to the French political establishment, with time spent member of Hollande’s government and as a minister in the Second Valls Government. He is pro-EU and points to his party as ‘the only pro-Europe political force in France.’ In short, Macron provides a ripe target for Le Pen.
Le Pen is not expected to defeat Macron in the runoff. However, as we have seen over the past year, pre-election expectations and polls do not tell the entire story. France is unhappy with the establishment parties and she can use that disgust to her benefit in a way that her opponent can only dream of.
The wildcard here is terrorism. Another terror attack between now and the runoff will rapidly transform the election into a one-issue race and will only propel more voters to at least consider casting ballots for Le Pen. Macron’s pro-EU position and vast experience in economics will not serve him well should more French citizens die at the hands of people inspired, or supported by ISIS.
In that regard, the populist feeling and prospects of a Trump Moment coming to France remain alive and well. Populist views have been growing in Europe for years now. In times of economic and security turbulence, like now, there is a yearning for a national identity, along with the feeling that a supranational body like the EU only strips away that identity. The runoff in two weeks will determine whether French voters identify first and foremost as French citizens or as citizens of the European Union and act as the foundation for whichever direction France decides take in the future.