Can France's 'new man' prevail?

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French centrist presidential election candidate Emmanuel Macron addresses workers at the Whirlpool home appliance factory Wednesday in northern France.

The final vote for the next French president, on May 7, will not only be critical for all of Europe but will have a major impact on the United States.

Despite their country's political and cultural differences from America, the French are going through an election upheaval that is amazingly similar to the convulsion that produced Donald Trump. The country is split between the winners from an open, globalized society and the losers who feel abandoned by traditional politicians.

On Sunday, in a first-round ballot with a field of 11 candidates, voters rejected mainstream parties of left and right, along with a host of independent candidates. The top two choices for a runoff were a political novice, Emmanuel Macron, who heads a new centrist party and supports an open society, closely followed by the populist, immigration-bashing nationalist, Marine Le Pen.

The polls show Macron ahead by 20 percent, yet - in these strange times - the outcome is far from certain. Should Le Pen pull an upset, we could see the collapse of NATO and the European Union and a further surge of populism on the continent.

In conversations this week with the current French ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, and a former French ambassador Pierre Vimont, now at Carnegie Europe, I heard serious concerns about the likely results.

"I would bet yes for Macron," says Araud, who was in Philly speaking for the French-American Chamber of Commerce and at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. But then the ambassador listed his caveats.

Le Pen appeals to those who have been hurt by free trade agreements or automation. "It's not by chance that Hillary Clinton lost in the [U.S.] rust belt," he says, "and Marine Le Pen has done well in the French rust belt." Moreover, says Araud, the problem goes well beyond the issue of trade. "Ahead of us we have more automation, so how do we retrain a 45-year-old truck driver? We are facing a real problem that may worsen.

"As in America, the result in Europe is that we increasingly have dual societies, where 50 percent are quite comfortable and confident, and the other part of the population is suffering, with their income stagnating and dropping. They are looking for scapegoats, like immigrants."

That is the audience to whom Le Pen appeals, with a "make France great again" campaign that calls for France to withdraw from NATO, the European Union, and the euro. She rails against trade pacts - and against immigrants, especially Muslims. However, unlike Trump (whom she initially praised, and who waxed enthusiastic about her), Le Pen's economic program is almost socialist in nature, aimed to woo economic "losers."

This new political climate has helped Le Pen overcome the long-standing French distaste for the neo-fascist origins of her National Front Party. She has disavowed the party's anti-Semitic founder, her father, who advanced to the second round in 2002 presidential elections but then lost 80 percent to 20 percent.

Araud fears that Le Pen could win "because Macron is an unknown quantity and he will need people from the left and right to vote for him." That poses a problem which may look familiar to Clinton's supporters. In the first round of voting, third place with 20 percent of the ballots went to a far leftist with a certain resemblance to Bernie Sanders; many French Berniacs, including young activists, say they will never vote Macron, while some may switch to Le Pen.

Some voters for the fourth-place candidate, from France's conservative Republicans Party, may also vote Le Pen. And many disgruntled voters may stay home.

So the future of Europe depends on this: whether the 39-year-old Macron, a banker whose only political experience was a brief stint as economics minister for the current socialist government, can convince enough French voters that he offers new answers for a divided country.

"He is a 'new man' because he comes out of nowhere with a modernized centrist party," says Vimont. "He represents those who have had enough of switching from right-wing to left-wing parties and want someone who didn't play the usual game."

However, Vimont notes, when you get to Macron's program, "it sounds like what both [mainstream] parties have tried before with no success. And he represents the half of society which is elite and open to the world, as opposed to the half who can't stand the elites who have been in power."

Indeed, when I watched the baby-faced Macron during France's first presidential debate, I found him underwhelming. His neither-right-nor-left stance reminded me of a latter-day Bill Clinton or Tony Blair without the charm or the specifics. It's unclear whether he has any workable ideas for reforming European institutions or migration or creating jobs for globalization's losers.

"Will he understand he has to take on these concerns?" asks Vimont, who thinks Macron will win, but narrowly. If he does and his new party gains enough seats in June parliamentary elections to act, Macron could provide a template for how to combat populism in Europe. If he fails, the populist Le Pen may come roaring back in the next French presidential election five years from now.

trubin@phillynews.com