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Everyone's bullshitting about the French election

Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen extremely resoundingly last week. It was an electoral defeat for right-wing populism that, unlike in the Netherlands, wasn't achieved by pandering to nativism. That's a happy outcome, and an exciting prospect, so it's natural that everyone is rushing to learn lessons. The angles are varied. Today we have Chuka Umunna arguing that the result shows Labour can succeed by embracing an unashamedly open, pro-European message. Yesterday Rachel Sylvester reckoned the real moral of the story is that centrists should split from established parties, particularly on the left. There are lots more. But all these self-serving hot takes are wrong.

Macron beat Le Pen overwhelmingly. But any of the other candidates - Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left, Benoît Hamon for the Socialists, or François Fillon on the right - would also have won very convincingly. While polls before the first round suggested that Macron won by a somewhat larger margin than the others would have, the core fact is that Le Pen lost by a lot because a clear majority of French voters prefer any other political platform to the one offered by her Front National. Knowing this, it's pretty ridiculous to attempt any argument which highlights unique features of Macron's campaign or platform as the key to defeating the nativist right.

Still: it actually was Macron who won, because he won in the first round. Even if what we're learning is the secret to beating populism by a little bit, rather than the secret to beating it by thirty points, isn't that something? But unfortunately we're not even learning that. The first round was really very close among the top four candidates; Macron did better than tie with the others in the top three, but not significantly better. Imagine that any of the following things had happened:
  • The centre-right Les Républicains nominated Alain Juppé, or even Nicolas Sarkozy, instead of Fillon
  • Fillon didn't get embroiled in a scandal over employing his own family members
  • Jean-Luc Mélenchon followed the lead of Yannick Jadot, the Green candidate, and dropped out when Hamon - by far the most left-wing candidate in the Socialist primary - became the candidate
  • The other hard-left candidates droped out and endorsed Mélenchon when it became clear he was a serious contender
None of these things did happen, but any of them easily could have without changing any important facts about the French electorate or political landscape. If they had, Macron probably wouldn't have beaten Le Pen in the first round and might well not have made the top two. (He didn't poll in the top two before Fillon's scandals started to flare up.) We'd have seen another candidate, totally different from Macron, defeat Le Pen very clearly; people would be writing triumphant columns about how the election showed that radical leftism is the secret to defeating populism, or depressed ones about how nativism can only be defeated by co-opting some of its ideas. Those articles would be just as silly as the ones now painting Macron as the saviour. If tiny changes to a few extraneous facts would render your argument about the overall state of French politics totally implausible, it's not a very good argument.

Boring though it sounds, the reality is that in France - just like in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, etcetera - somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of people are positively excited by nativist nationalism. The rest vary widely in their degree of distaste for it. The difference between France and Britain or America is not that Macron, or anyone else, found a special-sauce message that neuters populism. It's that in the US, 20% of people is just about enough to win a presidential primary and ride the coattails of partisanship to victory. In the UK, 30% can similarly hitch themselves to an array of people who love 'sovereignty' and deregulation, and scrape their way to a majority. In France, a multi-party system, weak partisan affiliation and a two-round election mean that 30% delivers a crushing defeat. The secret to beating populism in France wasn't the young, telegenic centrist - it was the electoral system designed by a 72-year old general to shore up his own power. That's probably not a moral we want to take to literally, but: systems matter.