Perhaps the most interesting thing about this weekend’s French election isn’t who won, but who lost—and what it might mean for America.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen of the National Rally party won enough of the vote—27.8 percent and 23.2 percent respectively—to head into a runoff on April 24. Close behind them were an assortment of hard-right and hard-left candidates. And in the also-ran category: Valérie Pécresse (4.8 percent) and Anne Hildago (1.8 percent). Amazingly, their parties—the Republicans and the Socialists—dominated French politics for decades, and now they’re fast on their way to obscurity.
It’s a little bit like if America held a giant nonpartisan “jungle primary” and the Republican and Democratic candidates combined didn’t break double digits, never mind fail to make the runoff.
Of course, France’s politics and political system are quite different from ours, so the analogy shouldn’t be taken too literally. There’s a reason France had five republics, and we’re still working on our first. Macron created his party, La République En Marche, in 2016 just so he could run for president.
Still, French politics have changed a lot in recent years. The most notable change is that the center of gravity has moved decidedly rightward. Le Pen, daughter of the far-right nativist Jean-Marie Le Pen (whom she expelled from the National Front party in 2015 for his antisemitic comments), is a national populist who, according to a YouGov poll, led Macron among all voters under the age of 55.
Meanwhile, in part because Macron has branded himself as the only centrist in French politics, the left has become more radical. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, dubbed by British papers as “France’s Corbyn” (perhaps in part for his own problems with the Jewish community), came in third with nearly 22 percent of the vote, barely a point shy of Le Pen. Melénchon wants to scrap the Fifth Republic entirely and start over.
Another important difference between France and America is that “liberalism” over there still has more of its original meaning. A French liberal, or “neoliberal,” on economics is a champion, or at least a proponent, of laissez faire economics. Meanwhile, both the far left and far right alike are far friendlier to state-driven regulation of the economy. The differences mostly manifest themselves over which winners and which losers the state should pick.
Given that our politics are moving in a French direction, it’s an interesting thought experiment: What if America had its own French-style jungle primary?
It’s harder than it might sound because polls aren’t entirely reliable. Partisanship in our polarized two-party system often drives big shifts in voter attitudes on some issues. For instance, when Donald Trump railed against free trade, a lot of Republicans and Democrats switched positions.
It’s easy to imagine an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders moving toward something close to Mélenchon’s agenda of constitutional radicalism and confiscatory taxation (in 2017 he even proposed a 100 percent tax on earnings above 400,000 euros). And even if they wouldn’t go that far, you can be sure someone would. That’s part of the problem with France’s system, the bigger the field in the first round, the more incentive there is for fringe candidates to throw their hats in.
On the right, the picture is murkier. The loudest voices on the right champion their own versions of populism and nationalism. Fox’s Tucker Carlson, who has praised Sen. Warren’s economic program, has also promoted anti-immigration “replacement theory,” which is all the rage in France.
While I suspect Carlson would leap into the race, he’d have a lot of competition in his lane. A host of Republicans have embraced the idea that the GOP should become the party of the working class, at war with “Big Tech” and “woke corporations” generally. What this means in practice, varies widely. What unites them is rejection, in whole or in part, of the American right’s traditional laissez faire dogma about not using the state for picking winners and losers. In September, J.D. Vance, who’s running for the Senate from Ohio, asked why the state doesn’t confiscate the assets of nonprofit institutions he dislikes and “give it to the people who’ve had their lives destroyed by their radical open borders agenda?”
Who would be a Macron-like centrist? I’m not sure and, not wanting to hurt their standing among Republicans, I’m reluctant to offer a guess.
What I am certain about is that while I have ample contempt for both parties these days, I am grateful for our two-party system and constitutional safeguards. The Founders were as concerned about the tyranny of autocracy as they were about the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny that would result from any single “faction” that might attain momentary power thanks to periodic gales of populist rage.