Macron beats Le Pen: Is there a lesson for Biden and Trump in 2024?

The French have just re-elected Emmanuel Macron, the most hated politician in France, for a second term as president. How did that happen? Two of the most unpopular politicians in the U.S. — Joe Biden and Donald Trump — may want to know, since they are the frontrunners for their respective party nominations in 2024.

The short answer is that, while Macron is disliked, his opponent, Marine Le Pen, was seen as dangerous. Better to stick with a candidate you dislike than risk electing someone who endangers democracy and national security. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine most likely sealed Le Pen’s fate. As the candidate of the extreme right wing, she was seen as a threat to European unity and NATO solidarity — as well as to Western values. The leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal published an op-ed article in Le Monde two days before the election arguing that French voters “have to choose between a democratic candidate . . . and a far-right candidate who openly sides with those who attack our freedom and democracy, which are the fundamental values we inherited directly from the French Enlightenment.”

Macron’s job approval rating, at just above 40 percent, is about the same as President Biden’s. Biden is seen as weak, a criticism that caught on last summer when the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan. But Biden is also an experienced professional politician who knows how to connect with ordinary voters. Emmanuel Macron does not have a populist bone in his body. He is seen as arrogant, privileged and disdainful of ordinary people, “the candidate of the rich.” 

It’s the same problem Mitt Romney had when he ran against Barack Obama in 2012. You may remember Romney telling his supporters, “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for [President Obama] no matter what.” They are people, he said, “who are dependent upon government,” who believe they are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing and the government should give it to them.” Romney added, fatally, “My job is not to worry about those people.” So much for the safety net. 

Emmanuel Macron — like Romney, an investment banker by profession — says things like that all the time. During the campaign, Le Pen reminded voters of Macron’s “words of disdain . . . power without empathy.” Macron called train stations places “where one encounters people who are succeeding and people who are nothing.” When a woman criticized Macron’s handling of the pandemic and the schools, the president told her, “You’re not living in the real world.” The stunned voter replied, “We’re not living in the real world? You’re telling us that, Mr. Macron?” In 2018 and 2019, President Macron faced a violent “yellow vest” protest movement in opposition to tax hikes and economic inequality.

Le Pen tried to take advantage of Macron’s elitism by embracing populist economic issues. She promised to scrap income taxes for those under 30, to eliminate sales taxes for basic necessities and to increase government spending for the poor. That’s economic populism, the populism of the left.

Populism has two faces — one liberal (Bernie Sanders for example) and one conservative (Donald Trump). What they have in common is resentment of elites. Left-wing populists attack the elite of wealth (for Sanders, that means Wall Street and big business). Macron’s most controversial proposal? Raising the retirement age in France from 62 to 65, a move opposed by 70 percent of the French. 

Right-wing populists attack the elite of education and culture, especially when the elitists are condescending (for example, disdainful of “deplorables” and “people who cling to guns and religion”). 

Le Pen is a right-wing populist. She is harshly critical of immigration and would end birthright citizenship for the children of the foreign born. Her most controversial proposal? She said she would impose criminal penalties on women who wear Islamic head scarves, “a uniform imposed by Islamists.”

Le Pen called her campaign “a choice of civilization” — French versus global. Like Trump (“America First”), Le Pen rejected multiculturalism and spoke to her supporters’ national pride and resentment of foreigners. Macron’s response? “I want a France in a strong Europe that maintains its alliances with the big democracies in order to defend itself, not a France that, outside Europe, would have as its only allies the populist and xenophobic International.”

What came across as dangerous was Le Pen’s call for a rapprochement with Russia. She promised to take France out of NATO’s integrated military command structure at a time when Russia’s actions have re-energized NATO’s founding purpose (to resist Russian aggression).

Le Pen was also critical of the European Union and promised to flout its rules. “Should Le Pen be elected, the European Union and NATO would instantly become weaker — some even speak of collapse,” an EU diplomat warned. A former Italian prime minister put it succinctly: “If she wins, Putin wins.”

Macron faced populist opposition from both the left (economic populism) and the right (cultural populism). The ideological gap is something that started during the French Revolution: When the national Assembly met to draft a constitution, conservative supporters of the king assembled to the right of the hall and anti-royalists sat on the left.

In the 2022 French presidential election, the separation persisted. After the left-wing leader was eliminated by coming in third on the first ballot, he told his supporters, “You must not give a single vote to Le Pen.” But he did not endorse Macron. So, a lot of left-wing voters abstained in Sunday’s run-off rather than vote for the hated Macron. Ideological division overwhelmed populist resentment. And saved France.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags 2024 presidential election Biden Donald Trump Elitism Emmanuel Macron French presidential election ideological division Joe Biden Marine Le Pen Mitt Romney National security Political ideologies political polarization Popularity Populism Right-wing populism in the United States Russian invasion of Ukraine

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