In France, a candidate whose party didn't exist little more than a year ago was the top vote-getter in yesterday's first round of the republic's presidential election, and is now the favorite to win the runoff election next month. Regardless of what you think of Emmanuel Macron or his En Marche! party, if you think anything of them, it would seem that France is doing something right for that sort of result to be possible. It may be, however, that it's something the French don't do that makes a difference. The most obvious detail of yesterday's vote is that the French electorate is not polarized. Four candidates received between 19% and 24% apiece in the first round, while the party of the incumbent president, who is not running again, received a humiliating 6% of the vote. The top vote-getters are, in order: a progressive centrist, a populist nationalist, a center-rightist and a candidate to the left of the established socialist party. Six additional candidates appeared on the ballot; three of those got at least 1% of the vote. The runoff makes voters choose between the top two candidates, Macron and Marine Le Pen of the National Front, and many of the defeated contenders already have endorsed Macron.
Le Pen basically inherited her party from her father. She has steered it away from his old-timey anti-semitism toward 21st century populism opposed to Muslims, the European Union and so on -- the sort of candidate Vladimir Putin is supposed to like. Le Pen is more popular than her own party, which only has two seats in the French senate and none in its lower house, though it is better represented in the European Parliament that it presumably despises. Some may take it as a sign of the French electoral system's weakness that her 21% of the vote advances her to the final round, but them's the breaks when a diversity of candidates makes a first-round majority victory virtually impossible. In any event, it appears almost certain that she'll be clobbered in the runoff.
We can guess that the National Front gets a lot of the same sort of hate that Trump voters get in the U.S., that they're probably seen as the "rednecks" of France if not neo-Nazis. In his novel Submission Michel Houellebecq imagined an Islamist candidate beating Le Pen in a runoff thanks to the widespread hate for her and whatever she's thought to represent. In reality it seems quite unlikely that supporters of the center-right "Republican" party or the leftist "France Unbowed" would turn to her after their hopefuls failed to make the cut. The only question is whether she gets beat as badly as her dad did when he made it to a runoff against Jacques Chirac in 2002. A runoff format inevitably results in many people voting against the "worst" candidate, but it also requires most voters to acquiesce actively in the election of someone other than their perfect ideological soulmate, when the only alternative is staying home to spite the system. It might be argued that most American voters acquiesce in a similar way after the party primaries, but it's probably more significant when a Socialist or "Republican" decides that he has to vote for Macron than when a Sanders supporter decides that he has to vote for Hillary, or when a Cruz fan feels obliged to vote for Trump. Even if it's ultimately more a vote against Le Pen than for Macron, it's still an act of civil responsibility that transcends partisanship in a way the comparable American scenario doesn't. The U.S. needs a Tocqueville in reverse: someone who'll go to France and explain to Americans how the French avoided bipolarchy politics and ended up with more freedom of choice in their elections than we have in our supposedly most free of nations.