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Thursday, May 4, 2017 12:01 am

In France, the center held

 Yeats’s famous line of poetry during the dark times after the Great War comes eerily down to us today: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” Yet in the preliminary French elections on April 23 the center did hold, or so it seems. Let’s unravel this most important election which could decide whether the European Union continues or dies.

The French election on April 23 was the preliminary election to decide which two candidates compete in the runoff election May 7. There were two big questions going into this race. Will the mainline parties be smacked down as they were recently in Britain with Brexit and the U.S. with Trump? Will the seven-decade world march toward increasing democracy, international cooperation and economic globalization persist or falter?

What happened? The race was very close but the mainline parties lost. The two candidates still standing are Emmanuel Macron, who is a centrist newcomer, and Marine Le Pen on the radical right. The traditional party candidates all failed. The Socialist candidate, Emmanuel Melechon, failed miserably while the other center parties came very close, but were nosed out. As the New York Times put it, this was “an earthquake, a full-throated rebuke of the two mainline parties.”

Macron came in first with 24 percent of the vote and Marine Le Pen second with 22 percent. Macron is a newcomer who has never been elected to public office though he has served in government. He formed his new party just one year ago as a Center Right party. He is only 39 years old, an investment banker, graduated from an elite university and certainly is a blue blood. He represents a strong center position in favor of further integration with Europe, bringing France forward into the globalized and digital world and working with Germany.

Marine Le Pen is quite a contrast. Her National Front Party was formed by her father decades ago as a France First, anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish party, which she transformed into a broader, less racist, party which is still France First and solidly against foreigners, free trade, globalization and globalists.

So the earthquake is that both traditional parties right and left of center crashed. But, and this is important, the previous trend in Britain and  in the United States – where internationalism was solidly rejected in favor of nationalism – was broken, or at least interrupted.

What is going on? The timeworn pattern of class politics, rich versus poor, has become more complex. Two new dimensions have been added: rural versus urban, and nationalists versus internationalists. Both the Brexit and Trump elections turned on rural versus urban, “down-home folks compared to fancy pants elites.” Interestingly, the rural versus urban split also contains or coincides with social issue divisions over abortion and same sex marriages.

The East and North of France are largely rural, old industrial areas with high unemployment. People here voted heavily for Le Pen. Their populist cry is: Give my country back to me. Protect our borders from foreigners, make us strong again and let us be Frenchmen, not hybrids.” The West of France along the coast and in Paris voted for the modern man Macron. These are the professional people and the better off folks. Their view is “We must go forward, the world is racing ahead and we must not be left behind. The past is a dream, long gone.”

So the French face a dramatic choice – nationalism or internationalism. The populists view this as keeping our French identity and sovereignty or losing ourselves in a mist of international nothingness.

What’s next? Historically in France when the radical Le Pen National Front has gained ground, the other parties have ganged up to defeat it. Once again as the winners were announced on election evening, all except one of the losing parties told their members to vote against Le Pen and for Macron. Polls now say that Macron will win by over 20 percentage points over Marine Le Pen.

So will the upcoming French election be just one more victory for populism on the right as in Britain and America? The answer appears to be no, the center will hold.

Roy Wehrle is professor emeritus at University of Illinois Springfield and a student of international history and world affairs.

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