In a victory speech under the Eiffel Tower, Emmanuel Macron acknowledged that many of the votes cast for him in the French presidential election—concluded this past week—were really votes against his opponent, Marine Le Pen. Macron, a pro–European Union centrist now generally unpopular after five years in office, won a convincing 58 percent of the vote—to the relief of liberal-democratic elites throughout the West, given the pre-election surge in public support for Le Pen, a Euro-skeptical, anti-immigrant populist, who ended up taking 41 percent of the vote. The result may appear decisive, but it brought the far right closer to the French presidency than at any time since World War II; it did this with strong support from younger and working-class voters; and it positioned Le Pen’s party to compete meaningfully in parliamentary elections this June. What’s happening in France?
Marc Weitzmann is a French journalist and the author of Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). According to Weitzmann, “most of the French electorate is far-right today,” as the traditionally mainstream parties of the center-left and center-right continue to collapse. With this political transformation ongoing, Weitzmann says, Le Pen and her movement are benefiting from a number of trends distinctive to France—an overlapping set of anxieties about French society and its place in the world, the trauma of terrorism, and struggles with immigration and Islamism that the country’s social and political leadership have failed successfully to address. Yet Weitzmann also senses the French right exploiting a kind of identity crisis for Western liberalism—a global force that may be resilient, as Macron’s re-election and the response to the War in Ukraine suggest, but still seems adrift and under attack from all sides.
Graham Vyse: Le Pen has claimed a victory in defeat, telling her supporters that “the ideas we represent have reached new heights.” Which ideas is she referring to?
Marc Weitzmann: I don’t think she represented any precise ideas. In fact, part of her success came from vagueness about what she intended to do. It’s clear she’s trying to embody populism on the right, just as Jean-Luc Mélenchon is trying to embody populism on the left. They share a lot in common. [Mélenchon, a leftist candidate, won 22 percent of the vote in the first of the election’s two rounds. Éric Zemmour, a far-right candidate even more extreme than Le Pen, won 7 percent. Only Macron and Le Pen advanced to the second round.]
Le Pen advocates for distancing France from the European Union; promoting a nationalistic, protectionist economy; and advancing an anti-elitist vision of politics, media, and culture. As we saw in her debate with Macron, though, she doesn’t get into specifics. Part of Zemmour’s success came from sounding more precise, if also obsessed, by issues like immigration. He was the only one to be outspoken on the danger of Islamism, which had been neglected by most politicians in the country.
Vyse: Why did Le Pen win nearly 3 million more votes this year than in her last run for president in 2017?