An American liberal can only envy France at this moment.
In their presidential election last Sunday, the French people ― despite suffering major terrorist attacks on French soil, despite enduring a sluggish economy that’s especially hurtful to the young, and despite living (sort of) with an unassimilated immigrant population ― nevertheless rejected the politics of fear and isolation peddled by the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and threw in their lot ― emphatiquement: 66% to 34% ― with Emmanuel Macron, political independent, Europeanist, technocrat, young, positive.
And if they did not vote emphatically for Macron, they considered the prospect of the extremist leader of the National Front, with its racist, anti-Semitic, and pro-Nazi origins, moving into the Elysee Palace, and thought, “Non, non, non, c’est impossible.”
The French people voted with intelligence for rationality, forswearing fear. Score one for civilization.
As the New York Times editorialized, “French voters were not seduced by nativist illusions and instead chose a youthful and optimistic president who believes that France must remain open, progressive, tolerant and European.” In his victory speech, Macron acknowledged the anger and disillusion driving Le Pen’s supporters, said he respected them, and vowed to give them less reason to vote for extremist remedies in future.
By contrast, the American electorate, enduring similar problems as the French but to a lesser degree, nevertheless succumbed to the barking fear-monger who blames “the other” and the fraudulent huckster promising miraculous deliverance, Donald J. Trump. And if they considered his odious baggage ― his xenophobia, his racism, his misogyny, his amorality, and, crucially, his dangerous autocratic tendencies ― they gave what might be called a Gallic shrug and said, “Meh, OK.”
In brief, America last November betrayed its roots as Immigrant Nation and its foundational ideals of equality, fair play, rule of law, human rights. Since then, the world’s Exceptional Nation has been committing a slow suicide. To be sure, a powerful resistance movement has risen up, wherein lies our salvation (if the resistance persists). But the environment in which we operate is driven by the lies, whims, and calculations of a president who doesn’t read and has zero sense of history.
France, on the other hand, remains in the realm of logic, rationality, principle, possibility. With this important vote France honors its proud humanist history as a seat of the Enlightenment, which pride Macron cited in his victory speech.
Importantly, in this era of angry populism, Macron also shows us how to combat the fear-monger: head-on and all-in.
In the one and only one TV debate held prior to French presidential elections (itself a rational development, unlike the endless debates in the American system), Macron squared off against Le Pen and, to her face, called her “the high priestess of fear.” Taking the offensive (and sounding quintessentially American), he accused Le Pen of “defeatism” in the face of France’s various challenges; he energetically parried with fact each and every point she made ― all of which allowed Le Pen little space to work her fear-mongering and reduced her to name-calling. In that performance, Macron was widely acknowledged as crushing Le Pen. (Full debate video with English translation here).
One of civilization’s biggest discontents is the conventional wisdom that the forces of light, the civilized, are on the downside of any argument with the forces of dark, that, faute de mieux, they must be on the defensive, not the offensive. How often do we hear that Milton’s Satan had all the best lines and all the energy? And French intellectuals, a notoriously pessimistic lot, for years have been publishing doom-ridden books on France’s decline (declinisme is now part of public discourse).
But mark well Macron’s muscular performance in the presidential debate: He went on the offensive, powerfully so, and vanquished the fear-monger (while seeming to enjoy himself in the process). Civilization gets a new tool.
Of course none of this is to discount the severe challenges Macron faces, nor the continuing threat of the National Front: It had its best postwar showing ever in this election, garnering one-third of the vote. In the legislative elections coming up in June, the results of which will determine how successfully Macron can govern, Macron vows to field candidates for all offices, but he established his party, En Marche! (On the Move!), only last year and lacks a deep organization. Le Pen likewise will field multiple candidates to increase her party’s presence in the Parliament.
Meanwhile, the two establishment parties which traded the baton in governing the country since World War II, the Socialists and the Republicans, have been sidelined and cast into disarray by the forces represented by Macron and Le Pen.
Much will depend on how successfully Macron addresses the anger and disillusion among Le Pen’s supporters, much of which focuses on France’s immigrant population. France must address this seemingly intractable problem, by facing its colonial past and its responsibility for a more thorough assimilation. It must solve the problem that recent terrorist attacks in France have been perpetrated by Muslims raised in France as French citizens.
France is now in uncharted seas. But at the least, with this resoundingly affirmative vote, it sails with a compass and its wits. Bon chance, la France.
Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”