Macron defeats populism in France but must now work with Trump

Story highlights

  • Macron is a proponent of globalization, centrist politics and the European Union
  • He will have to consider how to frame his relationship with the United States and Trump

(CNN)By turning to Emmanuel Macron as its new president, France has elevated a charismatic new leader in the great political battle between globalism and nationalism that is underway in Western democracies.

The 39-year-old's win over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen Sunday in the second round of the French election represents liberal internationalism's most significant response yet to the populist tsunami that yielded President Donald Trump and Brexit and ended a crop of establishment political careers.
Macron, a proponent of globalization, centrist politics and the European Union, in effect erected a bastion against the unconventional and disruptive forces that have roiled developed world politics over the last year.
    "This is our civilization that's at stake, our way of life," Macron said shortly after his victory, in which he took around 66% of the vote against Le Pen.
    How Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency
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    But it would be premature to declare that the populist wave has reached a high-water mark, given the recent turbulence in international politics. And Macron, who ran as an outsider despite establishment credentials, does bear some resemblance -- in his light political resume if nothing else -- to the neophyte leaders who have come from nowhere to shake up politics.
    The French campaign trod what has become familiar ground in big Western elections over the last year. It saw the older, establishment politicians crushed as they failed to identify and adapt to waves of change. None of the traditional parties reached the run-off as voters in France, like elsewhere, soured on the same old choices.
    As with the Brexit referendum and the US election last year, the election was fought on the fault line between well-off, cosmopolitan, urban elites and insurgents who tapped the frustrations of rural, less-educated and poorer voters, ones who are fixated on immigration policies and feel disenfranchised in a global economy that has hemorrhaged blue collar jobs.

    A fresh-faced candidate wins

    But this time, the elite candidate -- albeit one whose youth and outlook suggested a break from older, more conventional political forces -- came out on top. In effect, Macron ran on insider ground while adopting the rhetoric and habits of an outsider.
    The graduate of exclusive French schools who become a banker and finance minister formed his own party "En Marche" to escape the taint of the political establishment. His youth was a break from the past in itself. He will be the youngest French president ever and the youngest French leader, period, since Napoleon.
    That sense of freshness could help break the somber mood that has settled over French politics for years -- though his inexperience will also test him.
    Such attributes allowed him to separate himself from old-school politics and the establishment "swamp" in a way that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, with her decades at the center of Washington intrigue, failed to do last year.
    Macron's victory is likely to be studied by other centrist hopefuls in Europe and the United States as they struggle to combat the powerful economic message of candidates like Trump.
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    He will have to tackle the question of how to reach out to those who have given up on politics as usual and who find the promises of Trump and candidates like him so attractive.
    In fact, Macron's enthusiastic support for the EU and globalization was an implicit rebuke to the instincts of Trump and those who successfully campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union.
    He portrayed himself as a reformer, but as a bulwark against the forces of disruption dedicated to tearing down institutions rather than repairing them.
    But he also took aim at the hidebound realities of French politics by warning of public spending cuts and more free market reforms designed to kick-start France's highly regulated economy.
    Macron's triumph will buck up establishment figures who have had little to cheer in recent months: He was endorsed by former President Barack Obama, who is seeing his own legacy dismantled by the populist Trump. Macron also carried the hopes of European elites like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
    Trump, however, had seemed to hint earlier in the race that he preferred Le Pen. The US President has struck similar themes to Le Pen on Islamic terrorism and immigration. And following a terrorist attack in Paris last month, he tweeted: "Will have a big effect on presidential election!"

    Reinforcing the EU

    Despite the idiosyncrasies of the French race, many European analysts believe that Macron's win sent an unequivocal signal at an existential moment for EU unity.
    "This is a victory of values, the values of the Enlightenment, the values of France, the values on which America was founded, the values from which the US and the UK have gone significantly astray," said Nicholas Dungan, an Atlantic Council senior fellow, who teaches at Sciences Po, a top international research university in France that counts Macron as among its most distinguished alumni.
    "This is the end of know-nothing populism," he said.
    Macron's victory is already being seen as an invigorating boost for the European Union, which was knocked sideways by the British decision to exit and would have faced a meltdown had Le Pen, an avowed opponent of the European bloc, won.
    "The French electorate clearly said after Brexit, against all the forecasts from the Dr. Dooms of this world, that they were against Frexit and against leaving the Eurozone," said Philippe Le Corre, a Brookings Institution visiting fellow, who is a former French Defense Ministry official.
    Just as Trump raged against Washington, Le Pen played into frustration with distant EU bureaucrats among blue collar voters, a tactic that proved potent for "Leave" campaigners in the British referendum.
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    But this time, the anti-establishment fury was not enough.
    In dramatic scenes Sunday, Macron, whose supporters often waved EU flags alongside those of the French tricolor, marched to his victory rally at the Louvre in Paris to the strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" — which serves as the European anthem.
    In many ways, the trauma of the UK's vote to leave Europe, which was warmly and repeatedly welcomed by Trump as a political achievement akin to his own shock election victory, appears to have concentrated the minds of French voters.
    "The Brexit vote, you could even say, helped (Macron), because it helped France realize the importance of the European Union," said Dominic Thomas, head of the Department of French and Francophone Studies at UCLA, on CNN International.
    There are some reasons to think that the populist wave has broken.
    Le Pen's defeat follows a showing of far-right leader Geert Wilders in the Dutch election in March that fell short of expectations. In local council elections across the Channel last week, meanwhile, the UK Independence Party, which campaigned for Brexit, was all but wiped out. A surge by a right-wing populist party in Germany, the AfD, appears to have peaked ahead of Merkel's re-election bid in the fall.
    Yet it would be premature to dismiss populist, anti-establishment sentiments as a force in modern Western politics. For one thing, some establishment parties have adopted populist positions -- one reason why UKIP voters, for instance, are moving back towards the Conservative Party in Britain ahead of a general election in June.

    Le Pen splits France

    And after all, Le Pen managed to garner around 34% of the vote in the second round of an election which opened up deep splits in French society.
    Still, Macron's presidency may not count for much unless he is able to address the feelings of economic disenfranchisement and blight that have forced themselves to the fore in elections in the Western world over the last year.
    Macron signaled in his victory speech that he understood the stakes, asking his supporters not to boo Le Pen or her partisans.
    "They expressed today anger, dismay and sometimes strong beliefs. I respect them but I will do everything over the next five years to make sure there is no reason at all to vote for extremes," Macron said.
    The new French President will also have to consider how to frame his relations with the United States and Trump, whom he will now encounter at the G7 and NATO summits in Europe this month.
    Populist influences in the White House, including political guru Steve Bannon, have been openly critical of the European Union.
    But Trump played it straight down the line on Sunday, writing on Twitter: "Congratulations to Emmanuel Macron on his big win today as the next President of France. I look very much forward to working with him!"
    Macron, for all his philosophical, generational and temperamental differences with Trump, is likely to move carefully, stressing areas of agreement with the administration -- on fighting terrorism for instance.
    But he is likely to be critical of Trump in places where the US and France differ, like climate change.