In the face of the rising tide of right-wing populism and hyper nationalism that has engulfed countries in the West, especially the European Union, the results of the Presidential election in France have significant implications that go much beyond French national politics.
After the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump becoming the US President, the world was holding its breath while waiting for France to decide where exactly it leans on the new political landscape that is sharply divided in two parts – you are either with your nation-state or not.
While the defeat of Eurosceptic far-right parties in the recently held Austrian and Dutch general elections provided some relief to those against the demonisation of globalisation, the verdict in France is much more consequential in determining the future of Europe.
In the US election, the defeat of Hillary Clinton was trifling in comparison to the victory of a flippant Donald Trump. In the case of France, however, the defeat of the far-right Marine Le Pen is perhaps more significant and suggestive than Emmanuel Macron’s enormous victory.
Thirty nine-year-old Macron is quite an unusual political leader to have won the popular vote in a region at the crossroads. He is politically, culturally and economically liberal, has worked in the private sector and has never held elected office.
A political novice, he has spoken of reforming the French economy and the Eurozone but hasn't offered a clear agenda. While his support base constituted of educated citizens with white-collar jobs, his liberal and pro-EU stance was viewed with scepticism by many especially those with less education and low-paying jobs who lived away from the big cities.
After the results were declared, some labour unions in France announced that they would hold protests against the new President’s economic policies that they believe would threaten the protections offered to blue-collared workers.
In choosing Macron as their President with over 65 percent vote share, France has made it clear that it wants change. And in rejecting the anti-EU, anti-immigrant Le Pen whose vote share was about 34 percent, the French have demonstrated even more clearly what kind of change they do not want.
While Le Pen was seen as opposed to the intrinsic cultural ethos of France, Macron was perceived by the French as someone who would respect and uphold their secular and tolerant way of life.
Le Pen’s populist and nationalist Front National (FN) was formed 1972 by right-wing extremists. The country not only rejected her racist, protectionist, Eurosceptic and Islamophobic rhetoric but also refused to forget the xenophobic and anti-Semitic stands taken by members of her party including her father with reference to the Second World War.
Macron’s massive victory is a direct consequence of the rejection of Le Pen by the French electorate. After all, in the first round of the election around half the votes went to candidates who were opposed to free-markets and capitalism.
While Macron’s vote share was over 23 percent, former French prime minister and centre-right conservative leader Francois Fillon and the hard-leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon got a little over 19 percent each in the first round of voting held on 23 April.
Interestingly, unlike Hillary Clinton, Le Pen’s candidature wasn’t much about choosing a woman President. She did not endorse herself much as France’s first woman President. In fact she and her party are known to not hold views supportive of women’s rights. She has been opposed to progressive changes ensuring women’s health and safety especially with regard to women’s reproductive rights.
As a member of the European Parliament, she voted in favour of just three of the 59 proposals introduced for promoting women’s rights in the past 13 years. The only times she talked about women’s rights was when she spoke against conservative Islamic clothing for females.
So, in a way, the election result is also a rejection of the hyper masculinity rising across the world that would’ve affected France had Le Pen and her chauvinist FN come to power.
In fact, it was Macron who came across as more feminist than his female opponent. He has been married for ten years to a woman 24 years older than him. He also appeared to be more compassionate than the radical Le Pen.
However, to believe that the anti-EU sentiment in other countries will subside now since France will continue to be part of the bloc will be oversimplification of an enormous problem. Western societies including EU countries are disenchanted with the outcomes of globalisation and multiculturalism.
There has been economic instability because Eurozone policies have been common across nations instead of being tailor-made for members with distinct socio-cultural and economic realities. The austerity measures imposed on people after the global financial meltdown of 2009 have led to stagnant growth and unemployment.
The recurrent terror attacks have only added to the woes of the people who increasingly feel threatened by refugees and Muslim immigrants who are assumed to be radicalised. Prevalence of Islamic dress codes for women, such as the veil and the burkini, have made people insecure about losing their culture.
Islamophobia and cultural anxiety added to economic distress make a deadly concoction in a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
While France is more or less affected by the problems facing most EU nations, it fares better than many other countries. France’s economy is the third largest in the EU after Germany and the UK, and the seventh largest economy in the world.
Moreover, France is one of the most secular and tolerant countries in the world and its people are proud of these values. These factors are not the same for many other EU nations where citizens are much more aggravated than the average French citizen in light of the prevailing scenario.
The fact that Marine Le Pen managed to get about 34 per cent of the vote share — almost double of the 17.8 per cent that her father and founder of her ultra-right FN party Jean-Marie Le Pen had got in the 2002 presidential election — points to the growing grasp of the conservative right in France like in the rest of Europe. Macron has a huge responsibility ahead of him.
He will have to ensure that the liberal economic and cultural values that he has so strongly endorsed prove beneficial for his country and its people. He has the opportunity to bring about liberal reform in Europe that could eventually positively affect most nations of the bloc. If he fails, this could well be the last nail in the coffin of liberalism that is anyway dying a slow death.
(Ridhima Malhotra is a columnist at Tehelka. She is currently working on her first book of fiction. She can be contacted @RidhimaInd.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)