By Nelson Graves
I spent much of last week in the United States, where many conversations naturally turned to politics.
A recurrent question came up: “How is it that a centrist like Emmanuel Macron could win the French presidency and defeat a populist opponent, while a polarized U.S. electorate chose a nativist president?”
I’m flattered some people consider me an authority on French politics just because I live in Paris. As we know, proximity to events does not necessarily translate into understanding. Quite the contrary.
And a view from Paris does not automatically offer insight into reality outside the capital. Just as a view from New York does not mean one understands Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania.
But I think it’s an appropriate question and young people especially deserve an answer. Many youth are scratching their heads after the twin surprises of 2016 — Brexit and Donald Trump’s win — and some are positively despondent as they ponder a future they fear could cut them off from opportunities and rights they thought had been clinched years, even decades ago.
Macron benefited from a unique set of circumstances.
The bad news is I don’t think France offers a magical recipe for citizens yearning for more inclusion and less demagoguery. Circumstances this year were unique.
A centrist was not at all bound to win France’s election. After five difficult years under Macron’s Socialist predecessor, François Hollande, France was itching for change, and the election was the mainstream right’s to lose.
But the center-right Republicans squandered their chance when party leaders, still reeling from a primary campaign that unmasked gaping fissures in the party, failed to replace their candidate, François Fillon, after he was caught up in an investigation into suspected embezzlement of state funds.
So Macron benefited from a unique set of circumstances: a deeply unpopular and riven Socialist Party on the left, and a badly wounded candidate to his right. He struck out boldly on his own months before the election, ignoring jeers from all sides, and established himself early on as a credible alternative to the mainstream candidates and also to those closer to the fringes. Not every politician can do that.
Macron also benefited in the closing stages from an adversary, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who espoused abandoning the euro and distancing France from the European Union — positions deeply unsettling to many French.
Like France, most Western democracies have a history of alternating majorities — the political pendulum swings back and forth. Republicans and Democrats succeed each other in the United States, as do Conservatives and Labour leaders in the UK. (With its many post-war governing coalitions drawing on both the right and left, Germany is an interesting exception of sorts.)
Current U.S. politics is anomalous.
So the political center is unfamiliar terrain in France, as it is in many countries, and there is no guarantee that Macron, having skillfully won the presidency, will be able to put his imprint on the government that will emerge from legislative elections next month. Beaten in the presidential ballot, the mainstream parties may end up exacting revenge.
So it is in the United States, where third-party candidates have failed to carve out any significant turf, although they have had an impact on the outcome of some elections. Even if Democrats and Republicans currently have difficulty cooperating, to say the least, there’s little chance of a deus ex machina coming to the rescue from the center of the political spectrum.
Still, that is no reason for young people to give up on politics, as hard as it might be to contemplate working for either of the parties responsible for paralysis on Capitol Hill and in many state houses.
One message I had for young Americans I met in the United States last week was that the current state of affairs is anomalous and unlike politics for most of the nation’s history.
Consensus and compromise have not always been dirty words.
To be sure, America has never been entirely free of divisions. Some, such as tensions over racial relations, fester more than 150 years after the Civil War. Consider that the debate over abortion still rages, more than four decades after Roe vs Wade.
But for most of the post-World War Two period, politicians from both sides of the aisle could cooperate on important legislation. Consensus and compromise were not dirty words.
It will take a lot of work to rediscover consensual politics, but with leadership and a determination to understand our opponents’ motivations, it can be done.
Many young Americans have joined the resistance movement against Donald Trump. I would encourage them to engage with political opponents who might seem on “the dark side” but who make up a sizable portion of the electorate.
The good news about the 39-year-old Macron is that his success as an outsider and his youth inspire in many the same hope that Barack Obama stirred in 2008. Hope alone cannot govern a country, but it is what today’s youth needs.