Emmanuel Macron, 39 year-old French presidential candidate and former minister of the economy, industry and digital affairs under President François Hollande finished Sunday’s first round election in first place with around 23 percent of the vote. Macron left the Socialist Party in 2009 and quit the Hollande government in 2016 to start his own party, En Marche. He has never served in elected office and was a banker before he became an economic advisor.
However, none of this can be found in the headlines in American news talking about the election. Americans are more interested in the second-place finisher Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front. Le Pen has long been a fascination for American pundits trying to weave a global doomsday scenario encompassing Brexit, Trump, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Le Pen and other rising right-wing nationalist parties across liberal democracies.
This narrative is collapsing. Though it may seem small, the Dutch election last month was a harbinger of what isn’t coming: a right-wing populist take-over. The anti-Islamist party of Geert Wilders remained at virtually the same level, the current liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte kept his position and the left raised its share of the parliament.
The American perception of the French election was an inevitable Le Pen win, thus all stories were about how Le Pen hasn’t won yet. The National Front has been at the same level of support for over a decade and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, reached the second round in the presidential election of 2002. The Le Pens are not outsiders and they can never claim that label: Marine Le Pen has been in politics her entire life. The National Front making the second round is not a shocking new development shaking up the political dynamics of France.
It is Macron’s immense success as a true political outsider and triumph with a newly formed party in the center of a political system with hard divisions between parties and strong polarization of French politics. Macron won over the candidates of the classic French parties, such as Benoit Hamon and Francois Fillon. In a polarized and ideological field, Macron won as a centrist. At a time when criticizing the European Union (EU) and its dysfunction yields automatic support, Macron ran as a defender of the EU and argued for its preservation and strengthening.
Macron was predicted by the polls to win and Le Pen was expected to come in second. Now, polls expect Macron to beat Le Pen badly, by over 20 points. Just like when Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round, the establishment parties came together to for the Republican Pact to oppose the National Front. The new development is that the establishment is coming together behind an outsider centrist with a newly founded party. Fillon and Hamon have already endorsed Macron for the second round happening on May 7.
Le Pen coming in second is news, but Macron winning is bigger news. It shows that defending the European Union can be a winning position. Martin Schulz was surely taking notes from Macron for the German federal elections in September when he too will be defending the EU.