When David Cameron won a majority in the general election of 2015, despite final polls suggesting otherwise, his victory looked like a triumph for middle-ground Toryism. When Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election, some said that America’s anti-establishment politics would come next to Europe. When Mark Rutte hung on in Holland, it was claimed that normality was reasserting itself, since Geert Wilders had failed to break through.
Readers will get the point. We tend to read into elections what we want to find. Cameron’s win was unexpected by many people, including this site, but it flattered to deceive. The EU referendum result scarcely a year later showed how disillusioned, badly-off and resentful many voters felt outside much of London and its plush satellite belt. Trump didn’t outpoll other Republican candidates further down the ticket, most of whom were from the party establishment which he railed against. Rutte may still be there, but only after telling migrants (clearly, by implication, Muslims) to “behave normally, or go away”.
The moral of these stories, applied to the first round of France’s presidential election, is to search for the trend – or try to – rather than be swayed by the mood of the moment. It is true that the country’s main parties have been humiliated by the result, but this is not the first time that a Le Pen has made the final round of a presidential contest. Time will tell whether or not Graeme Archer’s hunch turns out to be right, and less well-off French voters push Marine Le Pen over the winning line, or the polls are correct, and they band together instead to keep the Front National’s candidate out. If this happens, it is hard to see how Emmanuel Macron, an independent, will have much authority amidst a system still dominated by the political parties.
We have got used to feeble presidents trying to grip a turbulent country: a Macron presidency would probably repeat the process. One could waste a lot of ink over what a victory for either candidate would mean for Brexit. Perhaps a Le Pen presidency would swiftly weaken the EU and strengthen Britain’s position. Or maybe the rest of the EU27 would toughen their negotiating stance – in order to send a message to anyone thinking of following us out of the exit door. We cannot know. What will remain the case is that France’s instincts are often protectionist, suspicious of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, and antagonistic to the City of London. These will endure whoever wins.
What is unmissable is that trend. The outlook for much of the rest of the world is sunny: longer lives, higher incomes, fewer wars. By contrast, the economic and cultural weather in Europe and North America is overcast: low birth rates, high immigration, pressure on wages, the disruption of automation. Le Pen is part of the response to it. We are wary of predictions here, but Macron is unlikely to crush her, if he wins, on the same scale that Jacques Chirac crushed her father in 2002.