No, the Le Pen-Macron French Presidential Match-Up Isn't Just Like Trump-Clinton

For one, Macron is the one with no previous elective office while Le Pen is the one from a political family.


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Emmanuel Macron, a former economy minister who founded the political party En Marche! last year, and the National Front's (FN) Marine Le Pen finished in the top two spots in the first round of the French presidential election, inviting ill-fitting comparisons to last year's U.S. presidential election.

Donald Trump, who after the Brexit victory last year said by the end of 2016 he'd be called "Mr. Brexit," tweeted out ahead of the French presidential election that he thought Le Pen would benefit from the ISIS-claimed attack on a police bus in Paris because the nationalist Le Pen was "toughest" on borders and terrorism. As weak as the comparisons between Donald Trump and Brexit were, comparisons between Brexit, or Trump, and nationalist candidates in continental Europe like Le Pen are weaker still.

Le Pen, unlike her father, the former leader of the FN, jettisoned any pretense to small government and embraced a far left, anti-business economic program to couple with her nativist political program.

Nikolai Wenzel, a research fellow at the Center of Law and Economics at the University of Paris Law School, sees some similarities between Le Pen and Trump.

"I think basically Le Pen is the wrong reaction to a real problem," Wenzel told Reason, "just the way Trump was the wrong reaction to a real problem."

"We're looking at a somewhat extreme, out-of-the-mainstream candidate with bad economic ideas going up against a dull, mainstream candidate with bad economic ideas," Wenzel continued.

But Le Pen is not an outsider candidate the way Trump may have appeared.

"Trump was an outsider from the political system, Le Pen is not," Antonio Barroso, deputy director at political risk advisory firm Teneo Intelligence, told Reason. "It's the opposite; in this race, the anti-establishment candidate is very much part of the political establishment."

Neither is Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker who has never run for elective office before, a Hillary Clinton clone.

"Macron was nobody, absolutely nobody two years ago," Barroso said. While he may be a member of the "institutional elite" because of his schooling and career in public administration, he's unlinked to any party, a "political nobody." Unlike Le Pen, or Clinton, he doesn't have any "political lineage" either.

Kerry Halferty Hardy, a libertarian nonprofit consultant active on several boards who currently resides in Paris, tells Reason Macron is more like Barack Obama circa 2008 than like Clinton. Obama and Macron spoke on the phone recently, at the latter's request, but the former president insisted the conversation didn't indicate an endorsement.

"Macron has some good points: he's not a friend of Vlad. He has actually worked in the private sector. Some potential reforms make sense," Hardy wrote on Facebook. "But there's no there there."

Hardy notes that Macron's lack of a natural base in government will make implementing any reforms exceedingly difficult. "So, what's the upshot if Macron wins?," she asked. "France continues to slide downwards, sans reforms, sans capitalized banks, sans growth… but with a big fat helping of 'hope and change'. Which means nothing will change at all."

Macron served as the economy minister for President Francois Hollande after the Socialist belatedly embraced the principle of economic liberalization. Macron's proposals, as French economist Emmanuel Martin told Reason last week, were a lot more nebulous than those offered by the center-right Republican Francois Fillon. He won the Republican primary by offering more intensive economic reforms than his rivals, and was the frontrunner in the race until a scandal involving his employment of relatives in no-show government jobs. He still managed to win 19.5 percent of the vote, about the same as Jean-Luc Melenchon, who Hardy called an "unrepentant Chavista/Stalinist communist"

Unlike Fillon and Clinton, Macron is not scandal-ridden. The Surete (more or less the French equivalent of the FBI) is not investigating him. He is not believed to have used a private email server while serving in government, and neither have emails of his political associates been leaked. Neither are his favorability ratings at record lows.

Wenzel is not convinced Macron can bring about economic reforms, but hopes he is wrong.

"The problem with Macron is he's very likely to represent the status quo and business-as-usual," Wenzel noted. "He's a former banker, so there's hope there, and he did propose some pro-market reforms under the Holland government, but my fear is that he will represent the continuity of the status quo of the huge weight of the government on the French economy."

France spends 57 percent of GDP on government, and has a GDP to debt ratio at 100 percent.

Wenzel has collected data on the share of the vote extreme-right and extreme-left candidates in France have gotten going back 40 years, and has seen a marked increase. In the first round this weekend, extreme candidates received more than 42 percent of the vote, while in 2012's first round it was 31 percent and in 2007 it was 18 percent.

Le Pen's share has not grown that much. In 2012 she received under 18 percent, this year just more than 21. She made it in the second round in part because of the weaknesses of the other candidate. The increase in the share to extreme left candidates, meanwhile, is partly the product of the weak Socialist candidate.

"There's probably a sense of discontent about where the economy is, the stagnation, the high unemployment rates, the frustration of whose responsible for that," Wenzel explained. "The worry is that capitalism is blamed, globalization is blamed, when in fact France with 57 percent of GDP government spending is not an example of pure capitalism."

"I'm not crazy about Macron, he represents the status and the heavy weight of the state," Wenzel continued, "but he doesn't represent that ugly closing. Le Pen is also in favor of bigger government, more regulations, just with a patriotic twist, and there's a closing off that's extremely worrisome in her."

"Capitalism, trade, integration are being blamed for what is the problem of the weight of the state and government intervention in the economy," Wenzel explained.

Barroso warns about American, and British, observers who might see Le Pen's mundane showing (or eventual loss) or far-right Geert Wilders' loss in the Netherlands, as evidence that the phenomena that led to Brexit and Trump's victory are behind them.

"I'm always kind of astonished that a lot of people seem to think if Macron wins, combined with the defeat of Wilders in the Dutch election, that this is a turning point for global populism," Barroso said. " This is completely wrong."

"About half of voters that went to the polls yesterday supported anti-globalization candidates with populist overtones," Barroso continued. "This is not a huge victory for anti-global populism either. The problems that have created this discontent haven't gone away, so the tide is not turning."

"The problems are still there," Barroso warned. "And it's the challenge of these leaders, particularly Macron, to alleviate some of these problems in the next five years, otherwise we'll be in the same position next time."

Macron, who is polling at about 60 percent against Le Pen, and who holds an 88 percent chance of winning on, which aggregates political futures market data, has a number of obstacles to victory in the second round. The Republicans, whose candidate Francois Fillon endorsed Macron, for example, chose instead to only release a statement urging members not to vote for Le Pen, as Barroso noted.

"This election is very interesting because this is the first time that you have no candidates from the mainstream parties going to the second round," Barroso pointed out, "which makes for very awkward endorsements, because you have parties still want to have a good showing in the deputy election that will take place in June."

"They don't want to say, you know, the game is over," Barroso continued. "They need to keep campaigning because there is another election coming, but at the same time they need to support a different guy here."

Barroso warned that one of Macron's biggest challenges will be to avoid being portrayed as the candidate of the establishment. "this is Le Pen's main point of attack… Le Pen wants to portray herself as a presidency of change."

Hardy, the nonprofit consultant, also noted the possibility of strategic voting in the second round.

"Even some people, such as Fillon voters, who 'prefer' Macron to Le Pen by default may vote Le Pen to weaken his presidency," Hardy told Reason. "And some Mélenchon voters will vote Le Pen (the blue-collar contingent, specifically) rather than Macron. Some others will vote Macron on immigration policy alone."

"But if the polls hold true, as they did in round one, Macron is poised to win 60-40."