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France, and the world, dodge a bullet

Emmanuel Macron’s election victory should not lead to complacency for the French president — or for other Western democracies feeling pressure from the far right.

French President Emmanuel Macron celebrated his reelection with his supporters in Paris on Sunday. His opponent, Marine Le Pen, capitalized on a widespread sense of frustration among many French voters.Christophe Ena/Associated Press

The defeat of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s French presidential election came as a huge relief for Europeans — in particular, for Ukrainians, who had ample reason to fear how the Vladimir Putin-loving Le Pen might have weakened European military support for Ukraine in its battle against Russia’s invasion. But her loss, combined with the defeat of a Slovenian populist on the same day, shouldn’t lead to complacency. The fact that Le Pen was even able to garner 41.5 percent of the vote is a sign that mainstream parties in Western democracies — including the United States — still need to do a better job connecting with alienated voters.

Le Pen, the Muslim-bashing head of the National Rally party (formerly known as the National Front), capitalized on a widespread sense of frustration among many French voters, who perceived national leaders as inattentive to rising energy prices and economic dislocation. Macron infamously triggered a series of “Yellow Vest” protests in 2018 after attempting to raise fuel taxes, which helped solidify his image in some parts of France as a smirking, out-of-touch elitist more concerned about climate change than voters’ economic struggles. One of the factors that animated those weekly protests, which endured for months, was the perception that Macron didn’t simply disagree with the protestors, but disrespected them.


For those voters, it wasn’t Le Pen’s xenophobia that represented the bigger threat to democratic values — it was Macron’s aloofness. In country after country, it’s the same story: A propulsive force in the rise of far-right movements from Hungary to Italy, France to the United States, is the inchoate sense among voters that, by looking down on them, mainstream politicians aren’t holding up their end of the democratic bargain. If nothing else, one of the takeaways from Le Pen’s strong showing is that elected leaders who are concerned about the erosion of democratic norms need to take seriously their own responsibility to navigate differences of opinion respectfully.

For instance, one of the underlying tensions the Yellow Vest protests exposed was how differently French elites saw the need for action on climate change than everyday French voters. In a second term, Macron shouldn’t backtrack on tackling France’s greenhouse gas emissions. But he should set an example of listening to people who are affected by new taxes and regulations and taking their views seriously.


One reason this year’s French election attracted so much global attention is because of the immediate impact it will have on the war in Ukraine. A win by Le Pen, who in the past has said she wanted to take France out of NATO and the European Union, and who has a warm relationship with Russian dictator Putin, would have probably meant an end to French support for Ukraine. Instead, French aid to Ukraine will not only continue, but Macron may also become the de facto leader of the EU’s response, since Germany’s new government is in disarray over its Ukraine stance.

Putin himself, through financial support for divisive far-right politicians like Le Pen, helped seed extremist movements in the West. But Europe, and the United States, created the conditions in which those seeds could grow. It will take more than one election to turn the tide on illiberal movements, but Macron’s victory could be a milestone in that process — if he takes this relatively close call as a mandate to govern better over the next five years.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.