It’s no secret that the White House was watching France’s presidential election with great interest. A dramatic French shift to the far-right would’ve done dramatic harm to international efforts on a variety of fronts, including the coordinated allied efforts in Ukraine.
With this in mind, much of the Western world breathed a sigh of relief yesterday. NBC News reported on Emmanuel Macron’s successful re-election bid over his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen.
Macron, the centrist incumbent, won with 58.5 percent of the vote in Sunday’s second-round runoff, compared with 41.5 percent for Le Pen, his nationalist rival, official results show. Macron triumphed decisively, although by a smaller margin than in 2017, when he won by more than 30 percentage points to became France’s youngest president. While she fell short of the Élysée Palace again in her third presidential run, Le Pen has secured the most votes ever for a French far-right candidate.
Le Pen conceded the race, which ordinarily wouldn’t be notable, but I considered it a refreshing change of pace to see a presidential candidate with a far-right agenda and Putin ties lose, acknowledge the results, accept the voters’ verdict, and concede defeat.
Perhaps such an approach could be exported to other democracies. I can think of a former American president, for example, who might want to take note.
In terms of the geopolitical consequences, Macron’s electoral success will boost coordinated Western efforts, in Ukraine and elsewhere. President Joe Biden told reporters this morning that he “feels good“ about the French results and it’s easy to understand why.
But in terms of domestic politics, something White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain wrote on Twitter late yesterday stood out for me: An interesting observation, just FYI. President Macron appears to have secured a double-digit victory over LePen, at a time when his approval rating is 36%. Hmmm...”
To be sure, there were a variety of polls in France, and just as surveys in the U.S. often show competing results, the same is true abroad. Some polls showed Macron’s public support dipping below 40 percent, while others showed the French leader just above the threshold.
Taken together, it’s probably safe to say Macron’s support in France ahead of his re-election bid was roughly in line with Biden’s approval rating in the United States now.
Klain wasn’t explicit on this point, but he didn’t have to be: The White House chief of staff was obviously noting that if one president can succeed despite a subpar approval rating, another president can do the same thing.
Perhaps. But let’s not forget how Macron won.
There are experts in French politics who can speak to this with far more authority than I can, but from a distance, it appeared Macron excelled by convincing voters that the right-wing alternative to the political status quo was simply unacceptable. The French president clearly wasn’t winning any popularity contests, but he persuaded his country’s electorate that putting his opponent in power would be a disaster.
All of which raises the question of whether Biden is prepared to make a related case against Republicans.
A few weeks ago, Biden stood alongside Barack Obama at a White House event about the Affordable Care Act. The incumbent president, in an unscripted moment, referred to congressional Republicans as “good folks“ with misguided ideas.
I talked to a few Democratic sources soon after who expressed frustration with the offhand comment — not only because they don’t see GOP lawmakers as “good folks,” but also because the more voters see Republicans as “good folks” with bad ideas, the more comfortable the electorate will be putting GOP candidates in power.
It’s not as if the French heard Macron describing Le Pen and her allies as “good folks” en route to his 17-point victory in France.
Biden’s style of politics is well established, and he doesn’t seem eager to villainize his domestic foes. But that’s what makes Klain’s point all the more relevant: Biden and his party could persevere politically, despite the American president’s unimpressive approval ratings, but that might very well require Biden to do what Macron did in framing the opposition.
On Friday afternoon, at an Earth Day event in Seattle, Biden said, “This ain’t your father’s Republican Party.... This is the MAGA party now.... These guys are a different breed of cat. They’re not like what I served with for so many years.”
He did not refer to them as “good folks.” It was a modest step in a Macron-like direction.