The people of France resisted fear and cowardice today, soundly rejecting the far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in favor of the liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron. Last year, the 39-year-old former investment banker and civil servant was starting up a new political party. Today with 65% of the vote, he steps onto the world stage amidst a wave of right-wing populism exemplified by the United Kingdom Brexit vote, the United States’ election of Trump, and Erdogan’s consolidation of power in Turkey.
That Macron won is somewhat remarkable. At the heart of Western Europe, France faces tremendous pressure in a number of different ways. The Brexit movement has unsettled the European Union and stoked fierce rhetoric that the supranational body is crushing the sovereignty of its member states. Russia, as with the United States, was actively involved in spreading online propaganda and misinformation in an attempt to undermine Macron’s pro-Western campaign. There is the refugee crisis, with thousands of people fleeing violence and starvation in North Africa and the Middle East.
And of course, there is the ever-present danger of terrorism. France has suffered particularly in recent years: the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris (17 dead), the November 2015 Paris attack (130 dead), and a truck attack in Nice on Bastile Day (86 dead) headline the most deadly, but numerous stabbings and assaults have occurred as well. Yet the French, despite probably feeling under siege many times, decisively chose Macron over Le Pen. It is an indicator of the character of the French electorate that they were willing to stand by their values of liberty, equality and fraternity even when those values are under tremendous pressure as a result of substantial immigration and highly publicized violence.
Macron’s election is a positive event, but much remains to be done. France’s economy faces tremendous pressure. The refugee crisis will continue so long as violence and instability reign across the Mediterranean. France also remains highly divided, with the second-place candidate being a mouthpiece for anti-Semitic and xenophobic views. He also must deliver on a promise to make France’s economy dynamic, which will be no easy task. Despite being pro-European Union, he’ll also have to strike a balance between maximizing the benefits of cooperation among the members of the E.U. and serving the bests interests of his own people.
It’s a daunting set of tasks for a leader with minimal political experience. Yet for now, Macron has won a decisive election victory, and that should give him momentum as he enters office. With the U.K. shedding its role as a leading voice in the world and the U.S. led by a deeply unpopular and ignorant president, Macron joins a shrinking cast of world leaders as advocates for problem-solving government, free trade, and a united west that resists the easy answers and harsh consequences that authoritarianism proposes.