Which demagogue will France elect as president?
With less than three weeks to go before the first round of voting, polls show independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and National Front leader Marine Le Pen each with about a quarter of the vote, making it virtually certain they will face each other in the runoff vote two weeks later.
The presidential election in France is drawing a lot of attention because the fate of the European Union as a whole may be hanging in the balance with Le Pen’s pledges to withdraw from the euro and to hold a referendum on leaving the EU.
A party that for much of its history has been perceived as extremist, the National Front has routinely been called “populist,” or even “fascist.” The longtime party leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, seemed to be the very incarnation of demagogue, and now his daughter has been slapped with the same label.
The presidential campaign in the U.S. also saw two candidates who filled stadiums, stirred passions and challenged the establishment parties: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Critics were eager to label both as a demagogue, which the dictionary defines as “a person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people.”
It is arguable that but for a corrupt Democratic Party structure, Sanders could have won the nomination and perhaps have beaten Trump, demagogue versus demagogue, in the general election. In the event, the sole demagogue making it to the general election won. (Please don’t whine that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote; both candidates were free to chart an Electoral College strategy and Trump’s was better.)
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Financial Times analyst Lionel Barber declared it “the year of the demagogue” after Trump’s victory, citing Trump and Brexit “godfather” Nigel Farage among “the crowd-pleasers and rabble-rousers who feed on emotions and prejudice.” (To leave no doubt in his readers’ minds about how evil these people are, Barber listed Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte as a third demagogue.)
If stirring emotions, pleasing crowds, and rousing rabble are the criteria for a demagogue then it certainly fits Sanders and Marine Le Pen — but also Emmanuel Macron.
The 39-year-old former banker, who briefly held an appointed position in President François Hollande’s cabinet, has come out of nowhere to represent the “republican” cause in this presidential contest.
Macron may be a stalking horse for the establishment, but his campaign has been that of a fiery independent. Much of his appeal rests on his youth and “passion,” and he has campaigned as anything but the traditional staid statesman, rousing rabble – albeit a better educated, well-heeled rabble – with the best of them.
Macron’s breakthrough rally came in December in Paris, where he reached a pitch of evangelical frenzy that has been compared to Howard Dean’s famous scream after he won the 2004 Democratic Iowa caucuses.
Macron’s fervent peroration in front of a massive crowd that fed the energy back to him, left him arms flung out, visibly exulting in the acclaim. At that moment, at least, he was the poster child for demagoguery.
Tapping into voter passions is a tricky business, however. Like Trump and Sanders, demagogue Macron has had to throw together some policy planks that have that thrown-together look and are easy to poke holes into.
He is, like a majority of French voters, pro-EU, but he is also a champion of the same neoliberal economic policies that have made the EU leadership and Hollande’s government very unpopular in France.
Like Trump and Sanders, demagogue Macron has had to throw together some policy planks that have that thrown-together look and are easy to poke holes into.
In fact, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who failed to win the Socialist primary to be his party’s presidential nominee, may have done Macron little good by endorsing him, reminding voters that Macron was involved in the government’s unpopular policies.
The biggest imponderable in the election is that polls say nearly half of voters — one recent poll put it at 43% — are still undecided. It’s not too far-fetched to conclude that many of these have in fact made up their mind to vote for Le Pen but don’t want to tell pollsters that.
In the meantime, Macron and the EU authorities who back him have been remarkably tone deaf regarding the controversial issue of immigration and the impact of a large influx of refugees in Europe.
Seeking minority votes, Macron last week pledged to “emancipate” Muslim minorities from their suburban ghettos. While Macron’s appeal expressly was to the well-educated migrant segment, his promise of emancipation may put off voters frightened by the violent riots in the suburbs.
This week, a report in the London Times suggested that EU leaders are preparing an ultimatum for nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary to drop their resistance to Brussels-mandated immigration quotas or to exit from the EU.
All of this could play into Le Pen’s hands and her firm stance on controlling immigration.
In addition, many of the left-wing voters currently polling in support of former Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon — who has seen his poll numbers rise to 15% from 11% in recent weeks — could opt for Le Pen in the second round instead of Macron and his pro-capitalist policies.
Many other left-wing voters, faced with a choice between Macron and Le Pen, are likely to just stay home in the second round. But a high level of abstentions — some forecasts are as high as 40% instead of the more typical 20% — and a late-breaking wave in favor of Le Pen could negate polls currently showing Macron with a 20-point advantage over Le Pen in the runoff vote.
Either candidate, however, is a shot in the dark for French voters. A demagogue, almost by definition, has no track record in governing, and France will have to choose between two of them.