After Britain voted to exit the European Union and America elected Donald Trump, the French ambassador to Washington DC, Gerard Araud, tweeted in despair: “A world is collapsing before our eyes.”
Now his home country has a chance to breathe new life into the liberal world order the English-speaking powers have turned their backs on.
After decades of statism, and five years of ineffectual Socialist Party rule, there is finally a critical mass for reform in France.
Brexit has also revived French enthusiasm for the European project. French support for the EU has shot up 10 points to 67 percent, according to an Ifop poll.
And Trump’s crude nationalism is showing the French the ugly reality of hysterical patriotism and anti-Muslim bigotry, both of which have been creeping up on them in recent years.
These three threads come together in the presidential candidacy of Emmanuel Macron.
Barring another upset — and there have been many — Macron should qualify for the second presidential voting round in May, where he would face off with Trump’s French counterpart: Marine Le Pen of the National Front. Surveys show Macron would comfortably beat her 63 to 37 percent.
A former investment banker and self-styled liberal in a country where “liberal” was once an insult, Macron champions lower taxes, labor reforms and closer European integration.
As economy minister from 2014 to 2016, he was responsible for allowing small companies to opt out of collective bargaining agreements and allowing companies of all sizes to do business on Sundays. He also lowered corporate tax rates and liberalized intercity transport.
The reforms were unpopular on the left, which is why Macron declined to seek his Socialist Party’s nomination. Instead, he is running for president as a center-left independent.
Since leaving the government, Macron has distanced himself from the aggressive secularism of the prime minister he served, Manuel Valls. He has also spoken out in favor of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door immigration policy when France has refused to admit many Syrian refugees.
Le Pen is Macron’s opposite in every way. Like Trump, she wants tariffs to protect aging French industries. Like Trump, she sees Islam as a threat to Western civilization. Her National Front proposes to take France out of the euro and switch to a Russia-friendly foreign policy.
A victory for Le Pen could sound the death knell for the West as we know it. A victory for Macron would be the first counterstrike against the nationalists and nativists who seek to take Europe and North America back to the days when every nation needed to fend for itself.
Macron owes his unlikely prospects to factors that have largely been outside his control.
Put that another way: he’s been incredibly lucky.
First, the center-right Republicans picked the socially conservative Putin apologist François Fillon as their nominee over the elder statesman Alain Juppé, an urbane centrist with cross-party appeal.
Then the Socialists threw in the towel by nominating not the center-left Valls — the only candidate with a chance of keeping the incumbent party relevant in this year’s election — but the far-left Benoît Hamon.
Hamon served as education minister once in a blue moon but otherwise has little governing experience. His signature policies are legalizing marijuana and introducing a universal basic income.
Thirdly, Fillon got caught up in an expenses scandal. It emerged that he had paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for seemingly non-existent work as a parliamentary aid. Fillon has tried to brush off the accusations by calling them a left-wing conspiracy. To no avail. His popularity is falling.
As a result, center-left and center-right voters are flocking to Macron, pushing his numbers up.
The polls are still close for the first voting round in April, when Macron will need to elbow out Fillon. But the stars are aligning in the younger man’s favor.