May 10, 2017
France rejects Le Pen in favour of Euro-centric Macron–Huge Challenges Ahead
by John Cassidy
As Emmanuel Macron and his supporters celebrated his big victory in the French Presidential election outside the Louvre on Sunday night, you could almost hear the sighs of relief from other parts of Europe, and also from this country. After a long and fractious campaign, which saw the two parties that have run France for decades humiliated, and the far-right National Front enjoying record levels of support, the center ultimately held. Which is good news all around.
Last November, it looked as if Donald Trump’s election, which followed the Brexit vote in Britain, might herald a wave of successes for far-right nationalist parties across Europe. That hasn’t happened. First in Austria, then in the Netherlands, and now in France, the spiritual home of European democracy, the extremists have been defeated in national elections. For now, at least, it looks as if Trump’s success may have marked the crest of a right-wing wave, rather than the upsurge.
Victory for the Macronites as Europe sighs in relief–Ensemble, La France
In Sunday’s election, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, virtually doubled the share of the vote that her father, Jean-Marie, received in the 2002 Presidential election. But she didn’t get close to the forty per cent that she had breached in some opinion polls. Surveys taken in the past couple of weeks indicated that Macron would win by somewhere between twenty and twenty-five percentage points. In the event, his margin of victory was about thirty-one percentage points—65.5 per cent to 34.5 per cent. (This according to the French exit poll, which is much more reliable than its American counterpart.)
The endorsements Macron received from politicians of the center-right and center-left after he came out on top in the first round of voting helped his cause a lot, as did the critical coverage that almost all of the French media meted out to Le Pen. But, even allowing for these factors, the final result represented a stirring victory for a thirty-nine-year-old former technocrat and investment banker who had never run for office, and who only founded his independent political movement, En Marche!, last April.
In an address at his campaign headquarters, in the Fifteenth Arrondissement, shortly after the result was announced, Macron sought to project an image of himself as a sober and mature leader, someone fully prepared to enter the Élysée Palace. He also recapitulated some of the themes of his campaign, including his defense of liberal values, his support for the European Union, and his embrace of hope and optimism. “I will protect and defend France’s vital interests. I will protect and defend Europe,” he declared. He added, “It is a new page in our long history, and I want that page to be a page of trust and hope recovered.”
After thanking the outgoing President, François Hollande, for his services to the country, Macron said he would seek to overcome the divisions in French society that the campaign had highlighted. His main goal, he said, was to “calm people’s fears, restore France’s confidence, and gather all its people together to face the immense challenges that face us.” He went on, “I will fight against the division . . . With humility but with total devotion and total determination, I am going to serve on your behalf. Long live the Republic, and long live France.”
As this speech indicated, Macron is stronger on generalizations and appeals for unity than specific policy proposals. During the campaign, he pledged to cut government spending, reform the tax code, and loosen up France’s rigid labor markets—all this in an effort to make the French economy more dynamic. But he didn’t spell out many details.
On the French left, he is widely seen as the Gallic equivalent of Tony Blair, a youthful figure intent on forcing trade unions and workers to submit to the rigors of the global market. Skeptical conservative politicians point out that he served in Hollande’s Socialist government for four years, and that he promised not to scrap two pillars of the French welfare state: the thirty-five-hour work week and the retirement age, sixty-two.
It is unclear what sort of mandate Macron will have for carrying out his reform program. To a large extent, his first-place finish in the first round of the election represented a rejection of the traditional parties rather than a vigorous endorsement of his agenda. Hollande didn’t even enter the race because he is so unpopular. The candidate of the center-right Republican party, François Fillon, saw his campaign undone by a corruption scandal.
Similarly, Macron’s victory in Sunday’s runoff may have largely represented a rejection of Le Pen and the National Front, with its record of racism, anti-Semitism, and apologies for Vichyism. According to the exit poll, forty-three per cent of Macron’s voters cast their ballots primarily to keep out Le Pen. Although Macron’s margin was large, turnout was low by French standards, and many ballots were left blank. Clearly, lots of voters didn’t like either of the choices.
Much now depends on next month’s parliamentary elections, which will determine how much support Macron has in the National Assembly, which makes legislation. At the moment, the Socialists and their allies have a sizable majority. Macron’s En Marche! party is planning to field candidates in all five hundred and seventy-seven constituencies, but it’s far from clear how they will fare. Despite his personal victory, his centrist political movement is still young and untested.
There is also a great deal of uncertainty about what impact Sunday’s result will have on the future of the E.U. By removing the possibility of a Le Pen Presidency, Macron’s victory lifted the gravest immediate threat to the union: a deeply Euro-skeptic government taking office in Paris, to go along with the one in London. Even before Macron arrived at the Louvre, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, had called and congratulated him. “She praised him for championing a united European Union that is open to the world,” Merkel’s spokesman said.
But one election result doesn’t mean that the E.U., which has just suffered through a lost decade in economic terms, can now mobilize enough popular support to survive and prosper. Macron supports open borders, free trade, free movement of labor, and greater efforts to accommodate refugees and assimilate Muslim minorities—all of which are under threat. His big idea is that, by showing that France is capable of serious internal reforms, the country will be able to persuade Germany to shift the E.U. toward a less austere economic policy, one more favorable to growth. Previous French Presidents have harbored similar ambitions that went nowhere in the face of Teutonic resistance. Can Macron do better?
But these are challenges for the future. Right now, it is enough to celebrate the defeat of right-wing extremism and to salute the victor. “What we have done, there is no comparison, there is no equivalent for that,” Macron told the cheering crowd outside the Louvre. “Everyone was saying it was impossible, but they didn’t know anything about France.” After he had finished speaking, the President-elect clutched his hand to his heart, closed his eyes, and led the crowd in a spirited rendition of “La Marseillaise.” Even from afar, it was hard not to join in.