By Paul F. State
In his autobiography written in 1821, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “So ask the travelled inhabitant of any nation, In what country on earth would you rather live? Certainly in my own, where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest and sweetest affections and recollections of my life. Which would be your second choice? France.”
Jefferson served as U.S. minister in Paris from 1784 to 1789 at a time when France, then western Europe’s most powerful country, found itself at the epicenter of novel social, political and economic thoughts swirling through the continent, and he came to admire a country where the ferment of ideas would lead to a revolution that, though it tragically departed from its initial promise, left stirring principles – liberty, equality, fraternity – that have endured.
The French stood true to that heritage in last Sunday’s presidential election, when, by a margin of two to one, they elected centrist Emmanuel Macron over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. In a country whose citizens are famously known for their passionate, ideological convictions, the voters chose a fresh-on-the-scene, young political neophyte without any established political base. That fact reflects a rejection of the political establishment by voters who in the first round of balloting had turned away from the major parties and who, in the second round, had either voted “blank” or did not vote at all.
But it also points to a determination by a clear majority not to depart radically from social values – tolerance and openness – that have long been enshrined and from institutional goals – political and economic integration across Europe – that are still being forged.
The election posed the greatest threat to the continued existence of the European Union, a highly imperfect project but one built up painstakingly by a succession of incremental steps since its inception six decades ago. In registering their continuing commitment to advancing continent-wide peaceful cooperation, voters resisted appeals to turn back to a world of closed borders and ultra-nationalist attitudes. Their resolve is the more admirable given persistent economic woes – unemployment stands at 10 percent – and a pervasive state of fear.
France faces deep divisions, among them over income and education levels, and confronts issues that range from growing the economy to advancing the assimilation of immigrants. But voters have said that they will face the challenges ahead on the basis of core values – openness, inclusiveness, separation of religion and state – that have defined French society, even if, here as elsewhere, practice does not always match principle.
For those who are dismayed by populist tenets currently finding favor in the United States and elsewhere – demagoguery, isolationism, ethnic division – the election marks the first major break from that tide. It sends a message to lift the spirit. Were he writing today, Jefferson would have no doubt penned the same entry.
Paul F. State, of Buffalo, is a writer, French translator and editor. He is the author of “A Brief History of France.”