Last month, President Emmanuel Macron won the French elections with a resounding 64%, one of the biggest margins in French electoral history. The election may have assuaged immediate fears about the strength of nativist populism, but it does not whisk away the underlying tensions that made 34% of France vote for Le Pen in spite of, or because of, her anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-globalization agenda.
Populism’s future as a political and ideological force in Europe in the coming years cannot be decided by something as simple as a single electoral victory. Even in countries that ultimately voted for anti-populist candidates like the Netherlands, France, and likely Germany in their August elections, there are still considerable local and national political forces that will not just disappear.
While Macron’s 30% margin is impressive on the surface, it was also the lowest voter turnout in the last four decades – many in France are obviously fed up with the political powers that be. Even starting a new political party – Macron’s En Marche! – did little to convince French voters that Macron was truly a political outsider, a breath of fresh air. In fact, many, especially Mélenchon supporters, saw him as the same old thing dressed in a young, new suit.
So what was this election about if not about loving Macron’s “new” liberal vision or Le Pen’s narrative of saving “old” French culture from new threats?
What brought about Drumpf, Brexit and the possibility of Le Pen was not so much nationalism as it was protectionism, not so much xenophobia as it was about comparative losses and gains from economic integration beyond borders. What is really feeding the contest between political populism and liberalism, a la Macron and Clinton, is the discord between losers and winners of globalism.
Macron’s win was less an approbation of his platform of continued globalization than a denouncement of Le Pen’s morally and pragmatically offensive platform. Le Pen’s promises to shut borders and force almost exclusive hiring of French workers in French companies – through taxation and other coercive tactics – were quickly seen for what they were, unrealistic. Her promises and policies were not an attempt to deal with the undeniable forces of globalization, but to pretend as if the clock could be turned back to a time where globalization and integration – economically, socially, politically – could be ignored.
French voters, unlike many Americans who voted for Drumpf, refused to be fooled by such attempts to crawl back under a rock. A return to the romanticized days before forces of globalization – the Internet, international organizations and international conglomerates – is simply not an option.
Liberalization of France’s economy by loosening business regulations, as proposed by Macron, may mean business growth and larger profits for the French… well, those who are prepared to take advantage of these opportunities. There are, of course, French nationals who do not have the requisite skills, training, or education to compete in more open, unregulated markets. Voters were cognizant of this disparity in Macron’s vision of the future – the two largest distinguishing factors between Le Pen and Macron voters were education and employment.
Macron’s platform did not say anything novel or genuinely believable about addressing this gap between winners and losers of international economic forces. His education agenda is more about trying to inspire and support the next wave of French elite geniuses to compete with the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Elon Musks of the world. His education agenda is unconcerned with supporting the vast majority of French students who are, let’s face it, not going to invent the next Tesla or run an international investment bank.
The divide in the French elections between winners and losers, between Macron’s elite, educated geniuses of the future and working class in the countryside could be seen on the electoral map. There was a split between low-employment, deindustrializing areas outside cities, and Macron’s overwhelming support from his “urban elite firewall” of Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux. This urban-rural divide was seen in the first round of elections as well.
Cities like Paris – where Macron won 90% of the vote – are essentially metropolises that benefit from globalization: influx of foreigners (both cheap labor and highly skilled); international trade and market centers; higher paid jobs and international job opportunities; globally renowned educational institutions; and more diverse consumption markets.
But turned on its head, maybe this urban-rural divide is a key to progressively moving forward. If the clock cannot be turned back on globalization, then rather than trying to stop it, the answer might be in bringing more people into the globalization fold. Leaving citizens out of reach of the fruits of globalization in less connected, rural areas is surely going to result in cultural, ideological and political divides.
This does not mean everyone must move to a city center, but that instead more radical distribution policies and techniques are needed. It would mean finding ways to bring globalized opportunities and advantages typically enjoyed in cities to more rural and suburban areas. The Internet, new energy technologies, and a near future in which drones deliver the mail and A.I. replaces service jobs, make the proposition of bringing rural areas into globalization’s fold less outlandish.
At the far extremity of the principle of globalization is the promise that no matter where you are physically in the world, one’s access to products, services and even opportunity is globally reaching. French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left garnered 19.58% of the first round vote on a campaign that actually tested that promise.
On February 5, Mélenchon kicked off his campaign with simultaneous hologram speeches in Lyon and Paris. Though mocked by the public as costly and oafish, like grandpa gone wild with technology, using holograms to overcome geographical barriers at least attempts to appeal to a future vision of what politics, borders and geography might look like. The rural-urban divide we know of today may not exist in the near future.
Macron’s win is not a final answer to the issue of nativism or anti-globalization in politics. Macron has simply responded by promising more of the same. The French economy may indeed perform better on the international stage under Macron, rolling back some regulations and opening up markets to international opportunity. This does not mean, however, that the country will have come any closer to addressing the unequal access to the spoils of globalization within its territories.
The impending June parliamentary elections in France will decide how far the Macron platform can go. The next administration’s prospects depend deeply on whether Macron’s En Marche! can get a majority; how many seats go to Front National; and whether remnants of anti-capitalism, anti-status quo sentiments on the far left will have a say. The results in June just might push Macron in a more radical direction to appease the far left.
If there is to be a resounding answer and stop to the more ugly sides of this recent wave of populism across the Western world, it must be with a vision that promises neither an end to globalization nor a continuation of it as it currently exists.
The platform of the future is the one that radically rethinks how globalization reaches, enhances, and empowers citizens beyond urban populations.