Some boring takes on the French election
Once again, taking popular positions on high-profile issues matters
Using the results of a foreign election to argue that all your domestic political hangups are correct is a huge hack move.
And yet, I really do think the most recent French presidential election illustrates a lot of key Slow Boring themes, including the importance of paying attention to public opinion, the virtue of political caution, and the importance of understanding institutional design.
These themes were apparent in the campaigns of both second-round candidates.
Marine Le Pen lost badly, but she has successfully rowed her party from the fringes to the status of main opposition party. At this point, they seem set to displace Les Republicains and become the dominant force in French right-of-center politics, which makes it very likely that they will win power at some point.
And Emmanuel Macron won big, not only defeating Le Pen but stiff-arming the left (while still getting the lion’s share of their votes) and scooping up tons of votes in the center, despite riskily gambling his ability to govern the country over an idiosyncratic obsession with pushing unpopular pension cuts.
Institutions and tactical voting matter
It’s striking the extent to which major post-election media narratives are heavily shaped by institutional quirks and tactical voting considerations that are technically irrelevant to the subject of the narrative.
For example, in 2022 Le Pen got the best-ever result for the French far-right. But also in 2022, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon improved on his votes from the previous election, finishing just a hair behind Le Pen. And he did so despite the presence of a number of minor left candidates who clearly had no hope of winning. If some of those Jadot/Hidalgo/Roussel/Poutou/Arthuad voters had gone for Mélenchon instead, the story of the first round would have been a breakthrough for the French far-left.
In this scenario, not making the runoff would have been a humiliating defeat for Le Pen even though she would have secured the same number of votes. A completely irrelevant consideration — Mélenchon’s struggle to fully consolidate the left-wing vote — was critical to our understanding of the outcome for Le Pen. Of course Mélenchon would’ve gotten crushed in the second round, but coverage of the race would have had a totally different tenor, focused on the question of whether a far-leftist could appeal to Le Pen voters rather than on whether Macron could persuade young leftists to vote for him.
But one key reason Mélenchon got so close to Le Pen is that seven percent of the electorate voted for Éric Zemmour, who ran to Le Pen’s right. That in turn reflects a crucial dynamic for understanding why Le Pen did as well as she did in the second round: she moved quite a bit to the center.
Marine Le Pen’s pivot to the middle
This is now the second cycle in a row in which Le Pen has taken bold steps to try to make herself and her party more popular.
Back in 2015, she expelled her own father from the political party he founded.
The elder Le Pen has his roots in pro-Vichy, anti-republican politics, a strand of the party’s DNA that remains fundamentally unacceptable to a lot of people in France. And for years Le Pen has been trying to set people’s minds at ease about that. Now, a lot of folks don’t buy it and think the leopard fundamentally doesn’t change its spots, which is fair enough. But for any political party, giving a founding figure the boot is a big step. When that founder is literally your father, it’s an even bigger step. And it worked! In 2017, Le Pen did significantly better than her party had done in previous elections.
In advance of the 2022 campaign, she did it again. During the 2017 cycle, she ran as an avowed proponent of “Frexit,” wanting to bring back French monetary sovereignty and topple the apple cart of the European Union. She abandoned this pitch during her 2022 run, hewing closer to a position we’ve seen from central and eastern European populists who’ve actually had to govern. These politicians are EU skeptics who engage in a lot of anti-Brussels posturing and tend to take the pro-decentralization side on various controversies, but none of them have taken their countries out of the EU.
That was a pretty bold choice and it carried a real risk, creating an opening for Zemmour that almost cost Le Pen her second-place finish in the first round. But it worked. With Le Pen striking a more moderate pose, the vote for the center-right Les Republicains candidate Valérie Pécresse collapsed, and Le Pen had no difficulty consolidating Zemmour voters in the second round. Le Pen also managed to improve her performance in France’s Overseas Departments, winning (among others) Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St. Martin.
If you don’t like far-right politics, that’s kind of scary. On the other hand, if the thing you don’t like about far-right politics is that it’s racist, then her success at winning in these majority-Black territories should be at least a bit reassuring. Le Pen seems to be succeeding in part by convincing people that she’s not as racist as one might have thought.
In other words, moderation works! But that means that moderation in the sense of “reassure people that you won’t make some risky change” works. Adopting an unpopular position that happens to be moderate-coded is very risky.
Emmanuel Macron’s big risk
Le Pen campaigned on lowering France’s already-unusually-low retirement age. That put some meat on the populist bones of her positioning but strikes me as somewhat irresponsible given the fiscal situation in France.
But then Macron, in what by all accounts is a gesture of true principle on his part, insisted during the campaign on running on the idea of raising the retirement age. He tried to do this before the pandemic and failed, even though his party holds a majority in the parliament. It’s an incredibly unpopular idea, and Macron’s party holds a tenuous legislative majority. They happen to have come out on top thanks in part to a highly fragmented and shifting party system, but back in 2017, they only got about a third of the vote in the first round of legislative elections.
Ben Ritz, who does fiscal policy for the Progressive Policy Institute here in D.C., told me that it’s good for Macron to have taken a bold position in support of pension cuts because the French system really does need reform.
Back in April 5th’s post, “What Was The Popularism Debate?”, I questioned the logic of that kind of thinking from left-wing activists in the U.S. And I think it’s equally questionable in the French context, even when the unpopular stance is coded as centrist. Since Le Pen was running on lowering the retirement age, Macron could have still been the more fiscally responsible candidate without staking out an unpopular position. And because his position is so unpopular, I think it’s very unlikely that his ideas will actually prevail. We’ll see what happens in the legislative elections in June, but I think he’s simply set his party up to lose their majority. Mélenchon is successfully constructing a broader alliance of left parties to contest these elections, and Zemmour has come out strongly in favor of right-wing unity, as well.
I think the way to practice fiscally responsible politics is to take up the most electorally appealing position that is also genuinely more responsible than the one offered by your main opponents. That maximizes the number of legislators who care about fiscal responsibility, makes the brand of “fiscal responsibility” look good and successful, and puts you in a position to govern.
Taking bold stands on principle sound nice, but I think it’s genuinely one of the most overrated ideas in politics.
The case for boring insights
I think this whole post is going to deeply annoy people who are very informed about French politics because I’ve obviously glossed over details and nuances. And I’ll concede that’s true; this article contains less nuance and detail than even I am personally aware of, to say nothing of the level of nuance and detail that someone who truly follows French politics could bring to bear.
The reason I think it’s worth bothering with such a broad and detail-free take is that ever since Trump started his march to power in 2015, a lot of actors in American politics seem dedicated to denying or ignoring some really basic and boring truths.
The fact that Le Pen got more votes by moderating her stance on key issues and that Macron cost himself votes by insisting on an unpopular principled stance are on some level the absolute least interesting things about this race. But what’s uninteresting about them is that people ought to take this stuff for granted. Yet often they don’t. I constantly see takes on Trump that ignore the importance of his decision to moderate the GOP’s policy positions on Social Security and Medicare. So while it’s both incredibly boring to say that “advancing unpopular positions on retirement programs hurts candidates in elections,” the fact that Mitt Romney did this and Trump did not is an underrated factor in recent American history.
It was evident that a lot of Biden administration officials took heart from Macron’s win. But it’s worth recalling that Macron was a moderate member of former Socialist President François Hollande’s cabinet who quit to found a more-moderate-than-the-socialists party and who is now governing the country with a prime minister who was in the main center-right party before defecting to Macron’s camp. This is sort of a loose French equivalent of the strategic approach to Trump-era politics that Democrats have been rejecting where they could have moved to the center on policy and attempted a fusionist coalition with anti-Trump Republicans like Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Liz Cheney. Dems don’t want to do that because they believe their policy agenda is too important to compromise for the sake of maximum anti-Trumpism. That’s fair enough, but it’s a choice.
Here, though, it’s worth recalling that political institutions matter. France has a two-phase presidential election — a broad multi-candidate first round, followed by a runoff between the two top finishers. America has a different kind of two-phase system — first a pair of multi-candidate primaries and then a general election.
If you ran the French results through the American system, Le Pen would have won the primary on the right and Mélenchon would have won the primary on the left, with Macron voters split between the two parties. And all signs are that Le Pen would have won the general. The shame of Democrats’ current predicament is that they rejected an electorally optimal approach for the sake of their policy agenda, but now seem stalled out on actually doing any of the main elements of that agenda.
As a fluent French speaker, I think Americans vastly overrate the differences between the two countries. It's especially glaring on the question of secularism, where American journalists claim "laïcité" is a subtly different concept (it's not; it's an exact translation) and that French right-wing objection to visible signs of Islam in public places grows from some consensus on the meaning of secularism settled since time immemorial (this stuff is all extremely controversial and the subject of heated debate in France). France has extremely similar debates as the US does on what is now called "le wokisme" (cringe, but also lol). The academic Stéphanie Roza wrote a whole book whose title translates to "The Left Against the Enlightenment?" where she defends Enlightenment principles as essential to the leftist political project – it fits in seamlessly with similar arguments in the English-speaking world.
And, look, both France and the US are secular, diverse, cosmopolitan republics with a powerful presidency, metropolitan areas with more than 10 million inhabitants which are global centers of art and culture, overseas territories, and a culture of self-importantly considering our country the world's beacon of liberty. We're just extremely similar countries! And yet even though France is doing fine, better than fine, most of the anglophone press has basically assigned it to the role of 'sick man of Europe' when I'm more optimistic about its longterm performance than any other large European country.
It's an interesting question why Macron should campaign on unpopular pension reforms.
The reforms are desperately needed. I wrote a story about why in July: https://atlanticsentinel.substack.com/p/macron-should-go-ahead-with-pension
1) Macron saw his popularity go down a bit in the weeks and months leading up to the first voting round and he wanted to remind his base why they liked him in the first place: because he's a reformer. He liberalized labor law and deregulated businesses; changes the European Commission, IMF and pretty much every international organization had been urging France to make for many years, but which previous presidents avoided for fear of stirring unrest. Macron made those liberalizations in the first years of his presidency, but then he delayed pension reform during COVID. Some of his voters might have been tempted by Valérie Pécresse, the Republican candidate, who also argued for pension reform. By doubling down, Macron convinced his voters to come home.
2) He wanted an unmistakable mandate for reform. Nobody can claim the French didn't know what they were voting for. Le Pen was against pension reform; the French chose the candidate for was for it.