In a victory speech under the Eiffel Tower, Emmanuel Macron acknowledged that many of the votes cast for him in the French presidential election—concluded this past week—were really votes against his opponent, Marine Le Pen. Macron, a pro–European Union centrist now generally unpopular after five years in office, won a convincing 58 percent of the vote—to the relief of liberal-democratic elites throughout the West, given the pre-election surge in public support for Le Pen, a Euro-skeptical, anti-immigrant populist, who ended up taking 41 percent of the vote. The result may appear decisive, but it brought the far right closer to the French presidency than at any time since World War II; it did this with strong support from younger and working-class voters; and it positioned Le Pen’s party to compete meaningfully in parliamentary elections this June. What’s happening in France?
Marc Weitzmann is a French journalist and the author of Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). According to Weitzmann, “most of the French electorate is far-right today,” as the traditionally mainstream parties of the center-left and center-right continue to collapse. With this political transformation ongoing, Weitzmann says, Le Pen and her movement are benefiting from a number of trends distinctive to France—an overlapping set of anxieties about French society and its place in the world, the trauma of terrorism, and struggles with immigration and Islamism that the country’s social and political leadership have failed successfully to address. Yet Weitzmann also senses the French right exploiting a kind of identity crisis for Western liberalism—a global force that may be resilient, as Macron’s re-election and the response to the War in Ukraine suggest, but still seems adrift and under attack from all sides.
Graham Vyse: Le Pen has claimed a victory in defeat, telling her supporters that “the ideas we represent have reached new heights.” Which ideas is she referring to?
Marc Weitzmann: I don’t think she represented any precise ideas. In fact, part of her success came from vagueness about what she intended to do. It’s clear she’s trying to embody populism on the right, just as Jean-Luc Mélenchon is trying to embody populism on the left. They share a lot in common. [Mélenchon, a leftist candidate, won 22 percent of the vote in the first of the election’s two rounds. Éric Zemmour, a far-right candidate even more extreme than Le Pen, won 7 percent. Only Macron and Le Pen advanced to the second round.]
Le Pen advocates for distancing France from the European Union; promoting a nationalistic, protectionist economy; and advancing an anti-elitist vision of politics, media, and culture. As we saw in her debate with Macron, though, she doesn’t get into specifics. Part of Zemmour’s success came from sounding more precise, if also obsessed, by issues like immigration. He was the only one to be outspoken on the danger of Islamism, which had been neglected by most politicians in the country.
Vyse: Why did Le Pen win nearly 3 million more votes this year than in her last run for president in 2017?
Weitzmann: It’s quite complex. In one sense, this year’s victory was a stunning success for Macron. He did better than François Mitterrand did in 1981 and 1988. He did better than Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande did later. At the same time, if you were to add together Le Pen’s electorate, Mélenchon’s electorate, those who abstained from voting, and all the little parties on the extreme right or extreme left, you’d realize that more than 60 percent of the electorate in this country voted for an anti-liberal, pro-Putin candidate. That means the majority of voters voted against democracy and the parliamentary regime.
Meanwhile, Macron isn’t a great leader. He’s a technocrat. It seems like the choice in liberal democracies today is between these happy technocrats—with their administrative regulation of our daily lives through technology and economics—and these embittered, rebellious sociopaths. There’s nothing in between.
Vyse: When you refer to that 60 percent of voters, you’re referring to the results of the first round of voting, before it came down to Macron versus Le Pen in the second. Mélenchon, who you mention, earned 22 percent of the vote in round one, just shy of Le Pen’s 23 percent. What was his appeal?
Weitzmann: Mélenchon is the heir to the French left’s Cold War politics. France was the Western country where the Communist Party was strongest in the Cold War era. Gaullism and communism were the country’s two political pillars, both advocating a strong central state. Whereas Gaullists were running the economy, communists were running the culture. Communist rhetoric never really left France; neither did a certain attraction to Russia. These go hand-in-hand with anti-Americanism.
It seems like the choice in liberal democracies today is between these happy technocrats—with their administrative regulation of our daily lives through technology and economics—and these embittered, rebellious sociopaths. There’s nothing in between.
Today, there’s an extreme left in France that’s at once similar to and different from American “wokeism.” Their rhetoric is similar—the new French leftists speak of “equity” and talk about white, patriarchal domination and so forth—but they’re different from U.S. wokeists because their electoral base is mostly Muslim and comes from Muslim countries. In a bizarre twist, Mélenchon—who was originally close to the secular communists and Charlie Hebdo—managed to make a weird alliance with far-left Muslims, who are anything but secular. Now he represents a strange mix of white, far-left bourgeois-bohemians; people in Muslim suburbs fighting for their religion; and some working-class supporters who aren’t voting for Le Pen.
Vyse: The second-round results yielded some enormous class divides. Roughly 63 percent of “professionals” voted for Macron while about 37 percent of them voted for Le Pen. She won about 66 percent of “workers with lower levels of educational qualifications,” while Macron won about 34 percent. Le Pen did well among people who said they struggled financially. Why?
Weitzmann: Again, it’s complex. In the ’80s, the French working class began to lose its voice in French politics. After the Socialists came to power, the left gave up on the working class. We saw the rise of the gauche caviar or the “caviar left.” Money, technocracy, and public relations took over. The socialist left was at the vanguard of that. There was a theory that the left needed to give up on the working class and bet everything it had on other young people, people of color, women, and gays. Meanwhile, the working class was in shambles—totally neglected and politically orphaned. The National Front [Le Pen’s party, since renamed National Rally] began to rise and attract working-class support, partially because of immigration and the state of suburban life. The left always refused to acknowledge any kind of problems related to migrants or Muslim culture, but such problems arose on a daily basis in the poor, working-class suburbs, and it wasn’t racist to say so.
A lot of young people from migrant families—victims of racism and discrimination, especially in the ’80s—couldn’t find jobs. By the end of that decade, you had whole families unemployed, which led to people hanging out in the streets doing nothing but rodeos with motorcycles or stealing cars or whatever. Drug trafficking increased. When the Algerian Civil War began in the ’90s, Islamist militants came to France searching for political asylum, which they were granted. These Islamists were able to develop anti-French, anti-white propaganda in the suburbs, which was quite effective. Again, the left never acknowledged the transformation of these suburbs, and all the right had to say about it was racist, so basically there was a void—nobody could really analyze what was going on.
It’s also important to understand that this “working class” isn’t the working class that used to exist in the ’60s or ’70s, which has largely disappeared. Unions disappeared. Industrial work disappeared. This contemporary class is a more fragmented population that has trouble making ends meet every month. It’s a lumpenproletariat rather than a real working class.
The left never acknowledged the transformation of these suburbs, and all the right had to say about it was racist, so basically there was a void—nobody could really analyze what was going on.
Vyse: And it’s full of people now voting for Le Pen.
Weitzmann: Yes, but some teachers are also voting for Le Pen now, even though teachers are traditionally on the left. They’re not part of the lumpenproletariat, but they’re embittered and angry. Basically, Le Pen was able to drive the country’s anger. I know some people in the Seventh Arrondissement of Paris—the richest in the country—who voted for Le Pen.
Macron’s electorate is also complicated to analyze. It’s not exactly a bourgeois electorate in the classical sense. It’s more like professionals—senior executives, senior managers, people who see no problems in our technological, administrative society. It’s not exactly liberalism as we used to know it. It’s not exactly “entrepreneurship.” Macron used the phrase “startup nation,” but that’s a catchphrase for people who are very naive in their beliefs about progress. They have this very simple view that things are going to get better.
Vyse: In other words, he and his supporters benefit from the new technological economy and continue to have a rosy view of it?
Weitzmann: They seem like people who’ve never read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. They think the way people used to think in the ’90s after the Cold War ended, believing democracy was going to spread all over the world, but they don’t even have the culture people used to have. They don’t know who the dissidents were in Eastern Europe. They’ve never read Václav Havel. Their thinking is all about how technology will make things better.
Vyse: Age was another factor that divided Macron voters from Le Pen voters. The two candidates both won substantial support from people under 65, but Macron dominated among those over 65. Why is that?
Weitzmann: There’s a lack of political culture among young people. They genuinely don’t know what Le Pen and her party are about. They don’t know what fascism means. Now, it’s important to understand that the youngest voters—those 18 to 24—generally support Mélenchon, but people between 25 and 50 are voting for Le Pen. I don’t have a good explanation for that except that people are scared and there’s a general anxiety. Nobody trusts politicians. We all know they lie and don’t keep their promises. Plus, the country has been through a series of traumas. You can’t discount the importance of terrorism in the minds of French people—the shock of the terror attacks since 2012. There was a migrant crisis in Calais. Then we got the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. It never stops. All of these events were sold to the public as a series of crises, not changes to which one should adapt.
Vyse: And Le Pen is helped by the sense of anxiety you describe, along with a desire to return to a time before these crises?
Weitzmann: Yes. That’s what Le Pen is selling—the idea that, if the political class wasn’t corrupt, if migrants were going back to their own countries, and if we had no neighbors, we’d be safe. We’d be great again.
That’s what Le Pen is selling—the idea that, if the political class wasn’t corrupt, if migrants were going back to their own countries, and if we had no neighbors, we’d be safe. We’d be great again.
I don’t believe there are fascist parties in the West today. There’s a post-fascist culture, so Le Pen can’t exactly be a fascist leader in the old-fashioned sense. She’s more of a populist like Viktor Orbán in Hungary. That said, some of the people around her are anti-Semites and nostalgic for Nazism.
Vyse: What does Le Pen’s strength in this year’s election mean for her party’s potential to develop into a mainstream political force?
Weitzmann: That’s what everyone is wondering about. We don’t have a clear answer. The whole political landscape is in reconstruction—or final destruction, depending on how you look at it. The traditional, liberal right—the party of Valérie Pécresse—split in two. Some will join Macron. Some will join Le Pen. Will Le Pen be able to build up her party? Or will someone from the traditional right replace her? It’s too soon to know. A lot will depend on the parliamentary elections in June.
Still, most of the French electorate is far-right today. Mélenchon voters aren’t democrats. They pretend to be on the left, but they don’t believe in democracy. They think it’s a trick from the system. They don’t care that much about elections. A third of them voted for Le Pen in the second round, a third voted for Macron, and a third abstained.
Vyse: What did you mean that “the political landscape is in reconstruction—or final destruction”?
Weitzmann: In less than a decade, we’ve seen this country’s two main political parties reduced to nothing. The [center-left] Socialist Party, which was once the leading party, now represents less than 2 percent of the electorate. The traditional, liberal right is in shambles. This is a bit as if America’s Democratic Party and Republican Party had disappeared and all that remained were the wokeists and Donald Trump. Macron is all that remains of the broad center in France, but he’s a new, technocratic centrist—not the kind of politician we’re used to.
Vyse: When you look at this year’s French election results, do you see any evidence of a broader global current?
Weitzmann: Totally. I mentioned the conflict between globalist technocrats on the one hand and sociopaths on the other. That seems to be a global situation. We should wonder more about what liberalism has become since the end of the ’90s. We feel as though the West has been resurrected—we’re once again using this phrase “the West”—without tending even to wonder what it means. Does it mean what it meant just after the Cold War ended? I don’t think so. We’ve had the disappearance of literary culture and dissident legacy. We saw the rise of the digital era, lies about weapons of mass destruction, and questions about common truth after 9/11.
Vyse: You say we should wonder more about what liberalism has become. What do you think it has become?
Weitzmann: Well, the West went from an offensive position at the beginning of the ’90s—believing we were going to spread our values—to a defensive position in the early 2000s, to the current moment, when the West seems to be under siege. Today the West is unable to define itself. That’s the main problem. No Western leader is able to define what the Western world is supposed to be.