Emmanuel Macron, a French technocrat running an independent presidential campaign to put political distance between himself and his fellow established elites, edged out insurgent nationalist Marine Le Pen in the most closely watched French election of many Americans' lifetime. Macron nabbed nearly one-fourth of the vote in an 11-candidate field, followed closely by Le Pen. Now he'll face her one on one in the May 7 runoff. But the partisans of the West's mushy middle — favoring more liberal globalization, more financial and economic regulation in lieu of political agency, and no social unrest in the bargain, thanks — are already popping champagne.
"It's a political earthquake in this country and in Europe," one respected journalist told CNN. "Macron's is a remarkable achievement, because he represents optimism."
Yes, fellow Americans, this is how bad it's gotten abroad: Squeaking out a first-round win by symbolizing a future of niceness now strikes the status-quo-ites as the beginning of a world made new.
The reality is considerably grimmer. How dire it was, throughout the French campaign, to watch centrists left and right insist that only they could beat back the forces of "extremism," that catchall term which has served the West so poorly in organizing its resources against foes foreign and domestic. The continued rise of populist, nationalist, and, yes, even communist parties in Europe has shown just how extreme a reaction established neoliberalism has provoked in its failings to date — inadequate, costly efforts, by turns ham-handed, shambolic, and impotent, to manage everything from the Eurozone crisis to the immigration debacle.
Yes, it's all been a tall order; yes, the ruling (or is it managing?) classes should have seen it coming. And yes: However well-intentioned and authentic the likes of Macron and Co., who probably grasp how truly bad it can get in Europe, their ilk are still locked into policies guaranteed to further aggravate political extremism left, right, and Islamic. They think their political stalemate with Le Pen and her fellow travelers is a victory. Really, it spells a fiercer culture war.
The real story of France and Europe laid bare by Macron's whisker of a win is that simply no consensus exists among today's adult generations about how to refashion a future for Europe. Right now, there is really no question that the globalist center's ideal "future" has been tabled indefinitely by events. There's not even any falling back on an "end of history." History is skipping like a bad record, glitching over the same travails. An open-ended financial and economic predicament with no rational solution and no mores deep enough to cauterize the wound and start fresh. A continuous low-grade panic attack of police action and surveillance, struggling undermanned and under cultural constraints to prevent just enough terror attacks and abuses, whatever that magic number may be. A complete forfeit of any plan to push EU regulatory unification toward the singularity point that the European project had always envisioned, however abstractly, as its justifying goal.
Neither Macron nor anyone on his ideological team has the first inkling of how to surmount or steer clear of these impasses.
Sometimes life does reduce down to muddling through or bust. But, again, all the trouble and pain is meant to be endured in the name of little more than the same: the secular ethic of terminal niceness, the spirit of the world's last museum curator or librarian, the small passing pleasures of enlightened materialism, the social bureaucrat who nibbes away at the edges of emotional injustice the way pensioners work at a jigsaw puzzle.
Does anyone really believe these values are enough to make indefinite suffering worth it?
Certainly France's and Europe's rising generations, stumbling in the shadows toward alternatives new and old, don't seem convinced. Imagine you are a 14-year-old boy or girl in Paris — secular, Catholic, or Islamic. Can you countenance for one minute the idea that you have a duty to endure the world your elders have made?