Liberalism Fights Back

I have one enemy, it’s the divisions, urban France versus rural France, the France that wins, the one that lost… We must face up to them. I will go into all those territories. I will not give them up to Marine Le Pen.
– Emmanuel Macron

On Sunday, May 7, 2017, in one of the birthplaces of liberal democracy, the people of France chose by a large margin to reject the bigoted platform of the National Front. Emmanuel Macron, a young, centrist, and socially progressive former investment banker and Socialist economy minister who has never held an elected office beat Marine Le Pen, a veteran of French politics whose father, Jean-Marie, has been an icon of European Neofascism for a half century.

Many people breathed a sigh of relief as Macron crushed Le Pen, in the face of widespread concern and caution from the public after the underestimation of the likelihood of Donald Trump’s victory. His centrist, socially liberal platform had the widest potential appeal, but the real lesson that Emmanuel Macron gave to the world is not in his actual policy views; it is in how he articulated those views.

In Macron’s own hometown of Amiens, Marine Le Pen attempted to upstage him by making a surprise visit to the floor of a Whirlpool factory where he was scheduled to meet with union leaders. At first, Le Pen appeared to have won the battle by portraying herself as the pro-labor candidate. She promised that, unlike Macron, he would not allow the factory to close and move their jobs to Poland as scheduled. She was met with thundering applause, taking selfies outside of the factory with Whirlpool workers and supporters. The English language media fixated on this exchange, but the most important moment had yet to come.

Emmanuel Macron made a risky maneuver and met with those same workers. He was greeted with jeers, but unlike Le Pen, who only made a brief stop, Macron stayed for over an hour and listened to the workers’ concerns. He argued that Le Pen is filling them with empty promises and pointed out that closing the nation’s borders to trade would actually hurt French workers, as most manufacturers in the country rely on exports to stay afloat. Instead of attempting to fill them with grandiose promises of job security and cuts to immigration, he emphasized the need to improve the country’s education system and worker retraining programs. Many of the people he spoke with, though possibly unconvinced to vote for him, calmed down and gained a level of respect for him that ran deeper than the temporary dopamine boost provided by Le Pen’s fiery rhetoric.

Despite his youth and lack of experience as a politician, Macron showed his skills as a democratic leader. A leader who tells constituents the reality of the situation and how they will try to improve it is always a better ally to the people than one who fills them with empty promises and believes voters are incapable of understanding complex issues. Le Pen and her peers like Donald Trump and Geert Wilders might try to portray their opponents as elitists, but it is the far-right who are the true elitists. Believing that the working class is incapable of understanding the complex issues that affect their daily lives is the very essence of elitism.

Another important aspect of Macron’s campaign is his breaking of the tired narrative that liberalism is simply the better of two evils or the middle ground between the extreme left and right. He presented a vision that was not based on the fear of an extreme or that pandered to some sort of childish nostalgia. He embraced innovation and markets while espousing a worldview that seeks to improve international institutions, not abandon them. He remained steadfast in his condemnation of terrorism and religious extremism while arguing that political secularism is not synonymous with the suppression of religion. In many ways, his campaign style resembled that of Barack Obama in 2008. For all the qualifications Hillary Clinton had, she unfairly became the candidate for those who feared Trump. Like Obama, Macron was the candidate of dynamism, tolerance, innovation, and, above all, hope.

Most importantly, the incoming French president didn’t win by appropriating the rhetoric of the far-right or creating a new form of populism. He was resolute in his internationalism and support for global engagement. His campaign stood in contrast to those ran by less charismatic leaders — leaders who sound like everything they say is filtered through a campaign consultant. He ran a smart, well-thought-out campaign that learned from the mistakes of Hillary Clinton, connecting with people in a way that great campaigns of the past like those of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan did.

France is now to be led by a young, unproven president with the tough job of uniting a divided country after a historically high vote for the National Front. It is possible that, four years from now, he will be seen as a something of a disappointment. Many progressives are rightfully apprehensive about Macron’s faith in free markets as a remedy for France’s ills.But for the time-being, France has given hope to embattled liberals across the world. And it has shown the world that it is possible to once again address the concerns of citizens without resorting to scare tactics or the demonization of others.

It is perhaps fitting that the United States and France, two revolutionary states founded on the principles of the European Enlightenment, are respectively stereotyped as hopelessly optimistic and stubborn. In 2017, the French Fifth Republic stubbornly fought against the seemingly unstoppable tide of far-right populism. In the near future, it is important that American optimism complements French stubbornness, as the future of liberal democracy depends on the people’s confidence in their ability to rule themselves. Often, this requires a willingness to remain hopeful in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For now, however, the French electorate has given evidence for hope.


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