To be sure, there were similar cries of despair in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round. But the situation then was much more contained: It was considered a freak contest and a one-off accident. Jacques Chirac, who won a resounding 82 percent, was so confident of victory that he refused to debate his opponent. A million took to the streets of Paris to “stop Fascism,” and voters flocked to Mr. Chirac, a center-right candidate, to ensure Mr. Le Pen had no chance of victory.
Things looked very different this time. When Mr. Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, made it to the second round for the second election in a row, nobody was surprised — and nobody marched in protest. The “republican front,” an emergency coalition of mainstream voters and parties against the far right, was weaker than it’s ever been. Mr. Macron’s victory was for a time seriously in doubt and far from emphatic when it did come. The far right may have been stopped at the ballot box this time, but its ideas and candidates are now firmly part of the mainstream.
The election in 2017 looks, in retrospect, to have been a missed opportunity. Mr. Macron, a political newcomer, spoke of upholding the French republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity. He pledged to set up more democratic political institutions and to hold elites accountable. He promised to tackle France’s colonial legacy and acknowledged French cultural and religious diversity. For many, it was a breath of fresh air. Here was a young president with a mandate and a motive to renew French democracy and society.
It didn’t happen. Early in his tenure, Mr. Macron was compared with Justin Trudeau, energetically bringing progressive reform to a tired country. Today Mr. Macron’s critics see him as a very different leader: a French Margaret Thatcher. His five years in office have been marked by contempt for democratic oversight, condescension for the poor and cruelty toward migrants. In the process, he disappointed and even enraged those who’d hoped he would be true to his campaign promise to be the president for all.
Politically, the effects have been parlous. By siphoning off large chunks from both center-left and center-right electorates, Mr. Macron helped bring about the demise of France’s two major parties. As a result, politics has become fragmented and debates have become polarized. Traditional party oppositions on socio-economic matters have been supplanted by endless culture wars on Islam, immigration and national identity. In this atmosphere, the left under Mr. Mélenchon has radicalized, winning the support of the young and multiracial but putting off more moderate left-wing voters.