The Symbolic Value of Emmanuel Macron’s Victory

Last night Emmanuel Macron was elected to the presidency of France in a sweeping victory. Defeating right-wing hardliner Marine Le Pen by a margin of 66% to 34%, Macron’s message of unity and cohesion carried sway with a commanding majority of French voters. 

As an inveterate news junkie, I have now read every English-language opinion piece written since last night and have come to the conclusion that the news media are too jaded to celebrate this victory, too wary of obstructionism and political gridlock to give Macron the credit he and his campaign deserve. While I recognize that the growing prominence of Le Pen’s pseudo-supremacist Front National is cause for alarm and that Macron is not going to have an easy five years in the Palais de l’Elysee, his victory is still cause for celebration among sober moderates.

Perhaps that’s why the jubilance has been restrained… leave it to sober moderates to downplay a significant win.

Macron’s win is significant for many reasons but primary among them – at least in my estimation – is that he now stands as proof that a majority of voters can put aside differences and make a moderate choice. The margin of his victory yesterday makes the slimness of his lead in the first round of elections easy to forget, but in April when the French first went to the polls, Macron garnered only 24% of the vote, compared to Le Pen’s 21%. Two other candidates, initial favorite and republican Francois Fillion and socialist Jean-Luc Melanchon, split 40% of the remaining vote with niche candidates, notably far-left Benoit Hamon, breaking down the remainder.

This was no sure thing.

The field of candidates represented diverse interest spanning from classic conservative republicanism to anti-austerity measures to what some called “radical socialism” and a proposed 32-hour work week. The French political interest is diverse and impassioned, with many options on either side of the spectrum.  As former President Charles de Gaulle famously observed, “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?”

Well, you start by convincing a majority to elect you in the first place. And for a centrist, the exact kind of bland policy-maker so crushingly rejected by the American electorate in November, this is no mean feat.

Macron’s success was carried largely on his promise to work collaboratively. In his acceptance speech last night he echoed these promises, saying his main goals were to calm people’s fears, restore France’s confidence, and gather all its people together to face the immense challenges that face us.” He went on, “I will fight against the division . . . With humility but with total devotion and total determination, I am going to serve on your behalf. Long live the Republic, and long live France.”

While Macron’s critics are quick to point out that he tends to do better on the rabblerousing unity than on precise policy, I choose to see his vagueness as an asset. Macron has made his bones as a fiscally-minded consensus maker and as president has promised to guide policy in a similar way. He is imprecise in his promises because the government over which he will preside is as yet uncertain, at least until the coming parliamentary elections, and promising to mitigate and advocate for the majority is a breath of fresh air for someone who has been drinking a little too deep from the well of broken Trump promises.

Macron’s election on a pro-Europe platform should also trigger a little hope in the cynical hearts of liberal democrats worldwide. France was thought by many to be the next domino to fall to right-wing populism, and has surprised many by not doing so. For a nation with growing middle-class insecurity and anger at the political establishment, choosing a president who promises small-scale labor reform and deepening ties to the EU while opening global markets is, well…reasonable. Reassuring.

For a nation plagued by more terrorist activity than just about any other in the developed world, the resistance of the impulse to fall into xenophobia and isolationism is admirable. While the National Front has made, and continues to make, significant gains in the hearts and minds of French people, the center has held.

And that should serve as inspiration for the downtrodden American majority that saw their candidate relegated to the woods. This kind of victory is possible, but only when the electorate is willing to set aside their first choice for the best choice. (Forgive me, I’ve made this about America) But the reason that Macron is now in office, the reason France did not fall into the same far-right farce as the U.S. is that there were no ‘Bernie of Bust’ movements. No conscientious ignorance in the face of near-Nazi politics, the French people are not madly in love with Emmanuel Macron, they can just all agree that he is a better choice than the ruddy-faced, blustering racist who opposed him. Sound familiar?

Let’s be clear that for the French, this isn’t even a banner election. At 65%, the turnout was the worst it’s been since 1981 and with a record number of abstentions, around 20%. But let’s also be clear that those numbers still eclipse the record turnout for Obama in 2008 (a paltry 63%) and that most Americans do not bother to abstain ballots when they do not like either candidate.

If the goal of democracy is to work within a defined system to establish a consensus (and yes, I’m using this rhetorically I know), then the French are simply better at it. And that’s the lesson of Macron’s victory.

Many people, working together can choose the option that will work best for everyone. A compromise, I believe it’s called. Maybe we should give it a try sometime.

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