Emmanuel Macron's win, a triumph for French liberalism

Emmanuel Macron represents the powerful, liberal electorate that has emerged since the 1990s

May 09, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

It is tempting to see Emmanuel Macron ’s victory in the French presidential run-off on Sunday as little more than a coronation. Yes, he won 66% of the vote but he did so with one of the highest rates of abstention in recent history and a record number of spoiled ballots. Even those who voted for him often did so by default in order to prevent the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, from winning.

More importantly, say critics, this unusual presidential run-off had two important consequences. First, that Mr. Macron’s ideas were never really discussed in depth. Second, that the new President has no proper electorate. Instead, many believe that his supporters are little more than an uncomfortable coalition of ill-matched groups and individuals. They do not share a common vision and they certainly do not agree with each other. When the parliamentary election rolls around in June, they will disperse and Mr. Macron’s self-proclaimed “movement” will fall apart.

A clear victory

It is quite possible that the new President will fail to gain a majority of seats in the French Parliament. But are all of these accusations about his campaign true? The evidence suggests otherwise. For a start, Mr. Macron won this election by a huge margin and achieved substantially better results than the polls predicted. Most commentators agreed that, in the circumstances, he would need more than 60% of the vote to appear legitimate. He got over this figure easily.


His success was also geographically diverse. Mr. Macron carried all but two of France’s 101 départements (administrative regions) and he did so with remarkable consistency. His scores were strong from French Guiana in Latin America to small hamlets in central France. In the capital city, Paris, more than 90% of voters chose Mr. Macron. By contrast, Ms. Le Pen did well in rural parts of northern and eastern France but she lost in every major city and did worse than expected in traditionally strong Front National areas in the south and south-east.

Finally, Mr. Macron can take pride in the fact that he came ahead of his opponent in every age, sex and socio-professional category, except industrial workers. Despite strong misgivings amongst the youngest voters and the unemployed, a large proportion of whom abstained, spoiled their ballots or voted for Ms. Le Pen, he still came out on top everywhere. For better or for worse, industrial workers are no longer a significant power base in French politics.

In short, Mr. Macron’s political strategy worked. With his message of stability, pro-Europeanism and technocratic governance, he attracted a wide range of voters. Not to mention that he did so at a time when left-leaning centrism seemed to be a toxic brand after François Hollande’s unsuccessful presidency. He unexpectedly mobilised Mr. Hollande’s former electoral base, achieving some of his best scores in the outgoing President’s fiefdoms — and he benefited from massive vote transfers from far left, moderate left and right-wing voters.

After all this, to say that this was a victory by default would be grossly unfair. In the space of a few years, Mr. Macron has gone from a rather bland minister to President of one of Europe’s most powerful nations. There is a fair chance that he will also have created a large political movement that will win a hundred or more seats in Parliament. Whatever one thinks of his politics, there is no doubting his achievement.

Revenge of French liberalism

As for Mr. Macron’s supporters, are they simply incoherent and opportunistic? There is certainly a strong element of political inexperience amongst his core campaign team, the vast majority of whom are under the age of 40. But this is not the same as saying that they have no ideas and no unified vision. In fact, Mr. Macron’s victory is entirely consistent with deeper transformations in French politics.


Several years ago, I argued that French liberalism was a vital — and growing — part of contemporary French political culture. I suggested that Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande’s presidential victories in 2007 and 2012, respectively, drew on particular aspects of France’s liberal tradition. And I maintained that an ever-growing number of people identified with liberalism. At the time, this seemed like a rather tendentious claim. But not today.

Historians of France have had much to say about its liberal tradition, which has included such brilliant political and intellectual figures as Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, Raymond Aron and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. By and large, however, they have recognised that liberalism has not been nearly as successful in France as it has elsewhere in Europe since the 19th century. There has never been a liberal party and few French politicians openly claim to be ‘liberal’.

But this has been changing since the 1970s. Over the past four decades, more and more French people have identified with a specifically French brand of liberalism that emphasises reform of the state, a greater openness to non-French ideas, a recognition of the plural character of French society, and market-orientated economic reform. Elements of these liberal ideas were taken up by Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande, but Mr. Macron has them all.

This means that France’s newest President — who, significantly, was born in 1977 — is a perfect embodiment of contemporary French liberalism. So too is his core electorate: young or middle-aged, multicultural, urban, European. Anyone who says that such a constituency is little more than a coalition of convenience has missed the emergence of a powerful, liberal electorate since the 1990s.


It is no coincidence that one of the most important issues for Macron voters was the way France was perceived in the wider world. Macron supporters, unlike those of Ms. Le Pen, are the sort of outward-looking people who care about what is happening beyond the borders of France.

Parts of the far left and much of the far right are correct to identify these people as the beneficiaries of globalisation, but the reality is that this group is now at least as influential as other, more traditional, French voting blocs like farmers, elderly conservatives, Catholics, and industrial workers.

This does not, of course, mean that Mr. Macron’s presidency will be problem-free. Since the early 19th century, most French liberals have been elitist and highly suspicious of the masses. Whether terrified of revolution in the 1830s or fearful of Communism in the 1950s, they have usually preferred to make compromises with conservatives rather than complete their ambitious plans for administrative and economic reform. At key moments — such as the 1848 Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871 or the Socialist landslide victory in 1981 — well-meaning liberals have been completely overtaken by events.

Mr. Macron could find himself in the same bind. With the persistent threat of the far right and the real possibility of a left-wing social movement opposed to his economic ideas, he may well be consigned to the same fate as his liberal predecessors: a brilliant mind, with brilliant ideas, but too scared of the mob. Or he could buck the trend and become France’s answer to Barack Obama. One thing at least is clear: his failures, as much as his successes, will define a whole generation of French liberals.

Emile Chabal is a Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh and the author of ‘A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France’. E-mail: emile.chabal@ed.ac.uk

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