Apr 23, 2017

France appears poised to hit pause on populist wave

David Vincent / AP

With their first-round vote today, the French set up a decisive repudiation of the populist wave that has shaken the seven-decade-old political and economic order. After the stunning victories of Brexit in the U.K. and Donald Trump in the U.S., French polls suggest that centrist Emmanuel Macron will be elected president by a commanding margin over anti-European populist Marine Le Pen in the second round of voting on May 7.

Winners: if Macron does win the second round, as seems likely, winners will include the European Union, the Euro, NATO and the U.S.-led liberal world order.

Losers: President Trump, pro-Brexit Britons, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Simon Nixon, the Wall Street Journal's chief European commentator, remarked in a tweet: "An astonishing achievement for Macron, who not only had the courage to stand but to campaign while literally draped in the EU flag."

The French election has attracted rapt attention around the world as the first serious indicator of global political trends following Trump's election in November. Macron won about 23.7% of the first-round vote, to around 21.8% for Le Pen. In head-to-head polls, Macron leads Le Pen by at least 20 percentage points. But if Macron had faltered, it would have been a third domino in the collapse of the U.S.-led order of free trade and open borders. It also would have signaled a collapse of Europe's steadfast rejection of Russia's destabilization of Ukraine since the 2014 invasion of Crimea, since Le Pen and the other two leading candidates are strongly pro-Putin.It will matter what supporters of the other two leading candidates do — whom they get behind, or whether many stay home out of disgust or indifference. But the result today led Charles Lichfield, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, to raise his forecast of a Macron victory in the second round to 65%, from 60% previously. Le Pen's only hope, Lichfield told me in a phone interview from Paris, is an extremely low turnout for the second round along with a surge to her by the followers of Republican Francois Fillon and far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon. He found neither probable. "It will be very hard for her to win," he said.Voters notably were not swayed by a terrorist attack in Paris three days ago in which one policeman was killed and another seriously wounded. Trump suggested that the attack would mobilize voters behind Le Pen.In the larger picture, the result still reflects profound French unease with what the existing system delivers for ordinary people. Jeff Rathke, an analyst with the Center for International and Strategic Studies, noted that — including the vote for firebrands Le Pen and Melenchon — some 40% of France's voters supported a radical shakeup of French policy, including withdrawal from the Euro. "Perhaps the wave has crested," he told me. "But no one should heave a sign of relief that we can get back to normal politics now."

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