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Macron’s rise shows that extremism – whether left or right – is not inevitable

George Orwell once wrote that the British were not sufficiently interested in intellectual matters to be intolerant about them. The French, on the other hand, enjoy nothing less than a high-minded, lofty debate over abstract concepts – or so it is believed. The British ask: “It works in theory, but does it work in practice?” The French ask: “It works in practice, but does it work in theory?” So the joke goes.

As a London-based French citizen watching my own country heading for a rancourous presidential runoff on 7 May and Britain preparing for its first post-Brexit general election, I’m not sure the supposed differences between us are as marked as we like to think. And I see lessons for the UK from what is happening across the Channel.

While you struggle to make sense of Brexit, we’re struggling with the looming catastrophe that would be the election of Marine Le Pen. And up against her in the second round, the 39-year-old centrist reformer, Emmanuel Macron, is our new national sensation. He wants to abolish the once watertight left-right divide, upending decades of ideological confrontation.

He’s no Robespierre. He quoted Albert Camus in one of his rallies earlier this month: “Each generation no doubt believes it is doomed to remake the world. The task of our generation may be even larger: it consists in preventing the world from coming undone.” So, not entirely unBritish.

This is not a perfect parallel. Though withdrawal from the EU is sad and costly, it’s unlikely to unravel British democracy. By contrast, the victory of a far-right leader in France would be the death of all the values the republic is meant to uphold. Brexit may be troublesome for EU citizens living in the UK – and there have even been several xenophobic attacks since 23 June – but a Le Pen win would put 7 million or so French nationals of African, Arabic or Muslim descent under constant physical threat. The bigotry that pervades her rallies would be unleashed nationwide. The country’s fragile social fabric, which terrorism has already torn at, would be ripped apart entirely.

If the polls are right, Macron should win. He hasn’t yet. But if his rise has proved something the British might do well to heed, it is that a robust political centre does have a chance against rightwing populism. The centre is not ineffective, and it’s not outdated. The old structures may crumble – and indeed the traditional postwar parties in France are all but wiped out – but that does not mean the extreme parts of the political spectrum will be the only ones to grow out of the ruins.

Radical rightwing politics has thrived by exploiting the popular rage that characterises the mood in France today (fuelled by joblessness and deep distrust of the elites). Nearly 50% of the electorate voted on 23 April for either the far left, the far right, or Trotskyist and maverick candidates. But so far, even against that sorry backdrop, a clearsighted, energetic Macron has come out on top.

He calls himself “progressive”, and stands for social liberalism, or pro-market social democracy. He’s not anti-capitalist nor anti-globalisation, and certainly not nativist. He’s the anti-radical who advocates step-by-step, moderate reform to heal the many fractures of an extremely tense and anxious country. He doesn’t want to pitch social classes or ethnic groups against one another. His is a slow-motion revolution, and that’s something utterly new by French standards. Indeed, he’s more interested in what works in practice than in what might look good in theory. That may seem familiar to you Brits.

It’s an approach that could strike a chord across a continent that sees nationalism reawakened, along with its ghosts. Le Pen embodies that rising nationalism in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the Jarosław Kascyński crowd in Poland. Brexit can be interpreted as a kind of nationalist resurgence. Witness Theresa May’s observation this week that 27 European countries are “lining up against” Britain. How often has a siege mentality tactic been deployed by illiberal politicians to galvanise the populists, with no regard for the consequences?

Macron’s ascendency could encourage those in Britain who would like to see another path open up. One that would help counter the kind of narrative deployed by May; one that could soften Brexit. A left-leaning Labour offers little solace in that regard. The best antidote seems to be a confident centre, one built on pragmatic, moral, optimistic beliefs, and, as we see in France, rich in potential. If Macron prevails on 7 May, the immediate effect of his centre revolution will probably be felt in France. But its most important effect should be to galvanise like minds abroad, and certainly here.