The French presidential election is heating up. We're now less than two months out from the first ballot, and it's likely that right-wing populist leader Marine Le Pen will finish first and qualify for the run-off. Which makes the identity of the runner-up crucial; it looks unlikely that she will win in the second ballot, which means whoever else gets into the run-off really could win.
The favorite should be former Primer Minister François Fillon, a conservative, but he has been slipping in the polls due to scandal. More deeply, perhaps, Fillon looks like a kind of French Marco Rubio: Everyone on the right likes him, but no one really loves him. His prospects look much better on paper than in real life.
Enter the strange figure of Emmanuel Macron. The youthful former economy mister is running as an independent, and is neck and neck with Fillon, a novelty for someone not backed by any party and a relative political newcomer, who just five years ago was but an obscure aide to the French president.
For months, many have described Macron, who has benefited from relentless, fawning media coverage, as a bubble. And there is a historical precedent for that: In every cycle, it seems, a bland centrist gets adoring media hype, surges in the polls, but ultimately disappoints at the ballot box. There was François Bayrou (three times), Edouard Balladur in 1995, Raymond Barre in 1986, and going all the way back to the dashing Jacques Chaban-Delmas in 1974, who sabotaged his own campaign through a series of goof-ups, leading to a famous moment for French political history buffs, when a surrogate of a rival candidate, asked to comment on Chaban, declined, saying, "One does not open fire on an ambulance."
It seems that this isn't just a French phenomenon — witness the recurring American tradition of the Mike Bloomberg presidential candidacy trial balloon. This seems like a feature of contemporary liberal democracy: Elites swoon over a figure who represents their best hopes and aspirations, which inevitably grants him fawning media coverage, all of it disconnected from the stubborn reality that most voters aren't attracted to what elites are attracted to.
So why does Macron have staying power? The answer, in part, might be that if the populists are winning — Le Pen is at the top of the polls, Brexit happened, Trump won — then the elites really want to fight back. If Macron and Le Pen really do find themselves in the run-off, it will be the first time in the history of the French Fifth Republic that none of the finalists are backed by a major party that has historically held governmental positions — a political revolution.
Indeed, the best way to look at Macron is as a kind of anti-Le Pen, or, to stretch the bounds of logic even further, a "populist from the top." If Le Pen is anti-establishment, Macron is the incarnation of the French establishment, a graduate of ENA, the top civil service school that trains the country's elites, and a member of the Inspection des Finances, the most elite civil service track. His only experience in the private sector is through the revolving door as an investment banker. And yet, Macron sounds off populist rhetoric: His candidacy, he says, is about sweeping out a corrupt system (even as he is supported by the vast majority of the French establishment).
It would be only slightly churlish to say that the parts of the system Macron wants to do away with are the democratic ones; witness his full-throated support for the EU in a country that has rejected it at the polls. Macron supports various liberalizing reforms, and Angela Merkel's welcoming policy towards migrants. He is, of course, a social liberal. In a country that takes culture very seriously, he has argued that there is "no such thing" as French culture; rather, there are many cultures with which the French perform a kind of synthesis. His biggest donors seem to be French tax exiles residing in London and Brussels.
In other words, he is the mirror image of the political realignment that is transforming Western politics. If the familiar motley crew of populists — Trump, Le Pen — are the candidates for those who lost out from globalization, then Macron is the candidate of the winners. In both cases, they seem to make old left-right divisions obsolete. If the Macron bubble doesn't pop, this may portend the realignment, not just of French politics, but Western politics in general, away from the left-right division that has defined Western politics since the French Revolution, towards a division between the people and the elites.
The problem with this idea is that historically, the blessing of the left-right divide has been precisely to obfuscate this deeper division, because direct conflict between the working class and elites is as likely to be resolved through violence as it is through the ballot box.