Does centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory over his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election signal an end to the populist wave that has had globalists on edge for the past year? Not so fast.
It’s true that during the campaign, Macron stood unequivocally for continued European integration, economic globalization, and societal pluralism. Le Pen, in contrast, promised a referendum on “Frexit,” accused global corporations and international institutions of wrecking France, vowed an end to immigration, and pledged to substantially reduce the role of Islam in public life. The contrast between the two visions could not have been starker and French voters, two-to-one, chose the former.
If you were keeping a global scorecard, you might count Brexit, the triumphs of Trump and the Philippine’s Duterte, Erdogan’s referendum victory in Turkey, and the growing authoritarianism of elected governments in Hungary and Poland as scores for the pro-populism side. Macron’s thumping of Le Pen adds to the tally in the other column, along with Green Party candidate Alexander van der Bellen’s narrow victory over a populist opponent in the Austrian presidential elections in November and uber-populist Geert Wilder’s loss in the Netherlands in March. The insights from an online course on the future of globalization I just led for 41 MBA students from 20 Global Network for Advanced Management schools suggest those worried about populism should not pour champagne just yet.
To grasp the ongoing populist challenge requires an understanding of what populism is and why it has become so relevant in so many places around the world. For the course, we disentangled a number of conflicting definitions of populism and settled on one proposed by Princeton political theorist Jan-Werner Mueller in a recent book, What is Populism?. Mueller argues that populists are at once anti-elitist and anti-pluralist. They claim to represent the “true” and “genuine” people, which usually boils down to the native-born majority that populists argue have been sold out by an establishment in business and government. Le Pen epitomizes anti-elitism and anti-pluralism and is a quintessential populist, adopting “In the Name of the People” as her slogan.
The case of Macron is more interesting. He is undeniably a pluralist and in many ways a member of France’s elite, educated at the country’s best schools and a former Rothschild investment banker. Yet his critique of France’s establishment during the campaign was almost as sharp as Le Pen’s. Rather than running for one of the established center-left or center-right parties, Macron founded his own movement, a one-man show that has organizationally more in common with Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom than with any of Europe’s established people’s parties. The candidates of the two political parties that have dominated France’s Fifth Republic were eliminated from a runoff when they garnered just 20 percent and 6 percent respectively, a stunning rejection of the political establishment. Of note, the same had previously happened in Austria where the runoff featured a member of the Green Party and a far-right populist, with establishment parties at the sidelines.
Macronphiles should be clear that Macronism, as an electoral strategy, is unlikely to be a scalable solution to growing populist sentiments in the West. Presidential systems such as France, and the U.S. for that matter, are much more open to political upstarts like Macron or Trump than the parliamentary systems that dominate the rest of Europe. To appreciate the severity of the populist challenge, ask yourself: had Macron not run, who would have won?
The challenge is not going away because the underlying concerns that have fueled populism have not gone away. That is a second big take away from my globalization course. The students, who were located in dozens of countries, worked in teams to identify factors most associated with anti-globalization sentiment across polities. What they found is that a sense of socio-economic decline and losing out to others – be they minorities within one’s own country, global elites, or foreign countries – make a country susceptible to populism.
Macron has his work cut out – unemployment is over 10 percent, youth unemployment is 25 percent, economic growth has been anemic, and a profound feeling of insecurity has led to tension among France’s various communities. Tackling them without a strong basis in parliament is almost impossible and most observers do not expect his movement, En Marche!, to morph into an effective political party in time for June’s parliamentary elections.
We have seen a similar story before: a fresh, young, charismatic leader defies the political establishment, wins the presidency with a message of hope and change, gets bogged down legislatively for lack of a majority, is criticized for not having done enough to improve the lives of the middle class, and is succeeded by a populist who vows to smash the establishment and return power to the people.
Should Macron fail, the backlash could mean that Le Pen would be the main beneficiary five years from now, especially if she succeeds at further mainstreaming her party’s image. It’s no surprise therefore that European leaders rushed to embrace France’s president-elect in the hours after the election. They pledged to work with him to reform the EU, rekindle economic growth, and achieve both social and physical security. Globalists are right to feel they had a lot at stake on May 7 – however, what happens next in France and in Europe will matter even more.
David Bach is Senior Associate Dean and Professor in the Practice of Management at Yale School of Management.
Originally published online on