Why Macron's victory is reassuring ... and yet not

Story highlights

  • Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in the second round of France's presidential election
  • Edward Lucas: But his battle shows the fragility of a political system that can be easily exploited by outside powers like Russia

Edward Lucas is a senior editor at The Economist, where he was the Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002. He is also senior vice president at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Here's the way Western democracies are supposed to work. Populist parties -- the ones that offer incendiary, crowd-pleasing answers -- belong on the fringes. Elections are fought between mainstream parties, which are big coalitions of idealists and pragmatists, reflecting well-structured social and economic interests. The outcome is decided by voters, not by foreign interference.

Not any more. What we are now seeing -- most recently in France -- is competition between the political mainstream, coalescing behind a single candidate, and its anti-systemic competitors.
The old coalitions are breaking down. The parties that once dominated politics are imploding. And a big -- although not yet decisive role -- has been played by an outsider, in the form of Russia and its leaking of stolen e-mails.
    It was a similar story in America, where the establishment (including a large slice of "Never Trump" Republicans) largely supported Hillary Clinton. But Donald Trump was able to beat her. Despite being a dodgy tycoon, he managed to crystallize public rage against a system dominated by dodgy rich people. Russian leaking of the Clinton campaign's e-mails helped too.
    The same tide of rage against an unfair system and its smug beneficiaries, coupled with Russian interference, has been running strongly in France. It did not surge all the way up the beach because Emmanuel Macron was a much better candidate that Clinton. He was not part of a political dynasty. He was an outsider, of a kind. He did not reek of entitlement. His message of Europhile liberalism and modernization was considerably more inspiring than Clinton's, which was a barely disguised "it's my turn."
    Macron's advantage is that he enjoys the support of the establishment but is not its captive. They rallied behind him. He doesn't have to do what they want.
    But his victory came only because the French political system had in effect collapsed. President François Hollande has destroyed his Socialist Party. On the right, François Fillon's careless approach to public money (he hired his wife for a non-job) epitomized the self-interested disdain for the rules which has so corroded the establishment's legitimacy.
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    It may be that this weekend's election marks a turning point. Macron's En Marche! party may do stunningly well in next month's parliamentary elections, giving him a chance of forming an effective government. French politics may realign with a modern center-left party, mildly pro-market but socially liberal on one side and more socially conservative and zealously free-market on the other.
    But I wouldn't bet on it.
    In particular, whatever happens on the left, it looks as though Le Pen is going to dominate the French political right for the foreseeable future. Though defeated in the presidential election, her strong showing is an excellent springboard for the upcoming parliamentary elections.
    The Kremlin did not succeed in getting its chosen candidate, the ardently pro-Putin Fillon, elected. But it has succeeded in another, broader aim, of undermining the legitimacy and stability of the political system, and in changing the political calculus within it.
    Perhaps the most striking fact about the first round of the French presidential campaign was that just over 60% of the voters chose the explicitly pro-Kremlin candidates: Fillon and Le Pen, as well as the hard left's Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Only 30% voted for Macron and the also-ran Socialist, Benoît Hamon. That is a stunning sign of Kremlin influence in a country which is a founder-member of NATO and one of Europe's only two nuclear powers.
    With Britain largely disengaged from European security, at least until the agonies over Brexit are resolved, and with continuing uncertainty over Donald Trump's geopolitical instincts and consistency, Germany under Angela Merkel is now the last big pillar of the old Euro-Atlantic security order.
    Having scored an unexpected victory in America's presidential election, and a near-miss in France, the Kremlin will be gunning for Merkel in the German elections this fall. Russia may have lost the element of surprise, but it has not paid any significant political price for its meddling in Western countries' elections.
    It would be nice to think that outrage over Russia's blatant meddling in the election, coupled with Macron's victory, reboots French — and Western — politics. An ideal opportunity comes with France's role in NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic states, as John Vinocur noted in a powerful commentary in the Wall Street Journal: "Macron promised that his first trip out of the country would be to 'visit the troops.' Election maneuvering apart, if he wants to say something significant about himself as a man of responsibility, the new commander-in-chief's destination ought to be the NATO battle-group barracks of the French marines in Tapa, Estonia."
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    The other question is about what, if anything, we will do to deter future Russian political attacks. In theory, we can do plenty. The thought of Western displeasure should terrify Vladimir Putin. The West, broadly defined, is seven times bigger than Russia in terms of population, and 14 times bigger in terms of GDP.
    Yet the as the judo-loving Russian president knows all too well, a smaller opponent, if skilled, nimble and determined, can easily topple a bigger and stronger one.
    Our political system has become extraordinary fragile as a result of our own greed, complacency and arrogance. Until we start fixing those problems, Russia will exploit them — and win.