Between Brexit and Donald Trump, Paris and Brussels feared that France would become the next populist domino to fall. That fear peaked when anti-globalization, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment nationalist Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front party got through the first round of voting in France’s presidential election in April, setting the stage for a May 7 runoff against Emmanuel Macron. The centrist former investment banker, who had never held political office before, eased those fears by handily defeating Le Pen. He now becomes France’s youngest head of state since Napoleon, having only created his own political party — En Marche! (“onward”) — a year earlier.
The historic battle between two political outsiders flipped the status quo on its head. Neither of the right- or left-wing parties that have traditionally dominated the French political landscape were even in contention. The early frontrunner, François Fillon of the center-right Republicans, was sidelined by an embezzlement scandal. Macron, 39, who served as economy minister for President François Hollande, shrewdly distanced himself from his unpopular former boss and ditched the center-left Socialists to form his own party.
His platform is a mix of left and right. He advocates for more business-friendly policies such as loosening labor rules and overhauling the pension system but denounces immigrant quotas and wants to speed up and simplify asylum applications. In contrast, Le Pen pushed a populist agenda that included protectionist measures for French companies, maintaining generous worker benefits and setting strict limits on immigration.
But Macron’s most radical proposition was embracing the European Union itself — a position that would have been a given just five or 10 years ago. In contrast, Le Pen called for possibly leaving not only the bloc, but also the eurozone, Schengen passport-free travel area and NATO. The mere fact that a candidate who disparaged everything from the euro to Muslims was in the running energized a core group of voters who felt abandoned by the elite — and terrified everyone else.
France’s ambassador to Washington, Gérard Araud, ominously tweeted in February that the “real significance of the French elections” would be “the survival or the demise of the EU,” calling the vote a “quasi-referendum.”
Collective Sigh of Relief
Unlike British voters who chose to split from the EU in their landmark referendum, the French opted to preserve the union, giving Macron 66 percent of the votes in a landslide victory. Le Pen is licking her wounds and has said she’s considering changing the name of the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie, presumably to shed its negative legacy of anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi extremism and make it more “présidentiable.”
In the halls of EU offices from Brussels to Strasbourg, so many sighs of relief were heaved they came out as one loud expulsion — of breath, not another member state. In Brexit-preparing Britain, The Guardian wrote that, “The much-anticipated domino effect following the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election has not, so far, materialized. And the European project has won.” And when Macron strode out onto stage after his win had been declared, he did so to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the EU’s anthem.
But neither Le Pen nor the populist groundswell she ignited is going away quietly. She promptly declared her party the “primary force of opposition” to Macron’s government. And the fact that Le Pen won 34 percent of the votes, nearly twice the amount her father got when he ran unsuccessfully for president in 2002, shows that the National Front will remain a formidable force in French politics.
For his part, Macron faces the formidable challenge of implementing his ambitious agenda. Despite his resounding victory, Macron’s popularity is far from assured. The rate of abstentions and blank votes in this election was the highest in over 40 years, and many French said they didn’t necessarily vote for the pro-business Macron, but rather cast a vote against Le Pen.
Battle Far from Over
Before Macron can even start governing, his party has to win a majority in the mid-June elections for parliament, where the upstart movement (recently renamed La République en Marche, or REM) currently does not hold any seats, because it was only created last year. If En Marche does not garner an outright majority or cannot cobble together a working coalition, Macron’s maverick government may be finished before it even begins.
A poll conducted by Opinionway-SLPV Analytics before the second round of the presidential race showed that En Marche would win between 249 and 286 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly — a fair showing for the new kid on the block. Macron has promised to field candidates for all 577 constituencies, with at least half of them new political recruits and half of them women.
Still, the neophyte president has a tough road ahead of him. His party also has to draw moderates who’ve defected from the two mainstream parties, but he cannot appear to be recycling the old guard, especially his former allies — the politically weakened Socialists. Additionally, the down-but-not-out National Front will put up a strong fight in parliamentary elections — as will the conservatives, who are still smarting from losing a presidency they were widely expected to capture.
Aware of the fact that the center-right Republicans are gunning for him, Macron tapped conservative lawmaker Édouard Philippe as his prime minister in a bid to woo right-wing politicians to his party. He has also stacked his cabinet with several other noted conservatives, along with a mix of moderates of all political stripes, perhaps in the hopes that if his party doesn’t win an outright majority in the National Assembly, he can still govern with a splinter group of Republicans. But if the Republicans win a governing majority, they could replace Philippe with their own prime minister and turn Macron into a weak president with a strong prime minister.
Assuming he does emerge with a legislative mandate, Macron will have a full plate as he tries to reform the slow-moving EU bureaucracy and address stubborn domestic issues, including high unemployment and security fears following a spate of terrorist attacks. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2016, then-Economy Minister Macron said French companies need more flexibility to hire and fire workers and create jobs to bring down its unemployment rate, which is near 10 percent — and up to 40 percent for young people in some places. The Islamic State-inspired attacks in Paris and Nice, Macron said, are not just a security issue, but also an economic one. “It’s about our ability to integrate [immigrants] and offer jobs, and for me, that’s one of the key rationales for reforms and I’m a strong believer that when you lift barriers, you improve the quality of opportunities,” he was quoted as saying at Davos by CNBC.
But bringing change to France will be a hard slog, and the price to pay for failure will be high, wrote Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian: “The obstacles to change in France are enormous, from powerful unions and a bloated public sector to farmers who make a habit of blocking roads with tractors. If Macron fails to reform France, in 2022 we may yet have a president Le Pen.”
Indeed, Le Pen’s economic populism still resonates with legions of working-class voters disillusioned by capitalism, unfettered trade and the privileged elite that Macron himself embodies.
Among other promises she made during her campaign, Le Pen said she wanted to rewrite the EU competition playbook to adopt a “France first” policy, not dissimilar to Trump’s “America First” mantra.
“The 2008 financial crisis and 2015 European migration crisis made the party’s anti-immigration and populist messages appear particularly prescient and politically potent to a disoriented electorate,” wrote Heather A. Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a May 5 brief.
In fact, nearly half of first-round voters chose candidates who espoused anti-capitalist views.
“You have 50 percent of the electorate that reject the market economy in a very radical way,” Gaspard Koenig, director of the French think tank Generation Libre, told Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times for a May 7 article. “Thus, [Macron] must during the next five years convince people that there are alternatives to the destruction of capitalism that can help them.”
Le Pen also pledged to hold a “Frexit” vote, or a referendum on pulling out of the EU, of which France was a founding member. The people didn’t want the EU any more and it was doomed to die, she said at a rally in the northern French city of Lille in February.
Macron stood in stark contrast to Le Pen — and the populist fervor that has gripped both sides of the Atlantic — with a more optimistic, reasoned view of the EU. In Lille, a month before Le Pen spoke there, Macron told a rally that “Europe is us. We wanted it. And we need Europe because Europe makes us greater. Europe makes us stronger.”
No Blank Check
That is not to say that Macron is going to hand Brussels a blank check. Days before the second round of voting, Macron qualified his pro-EU rhetoric in an interview with the BBC. While he insisted that he is a steadfast supporter of the “European idea and European policies” that he feels are “extremely important for French people and for the place of our country in globalization,” Macron also said the EU was dysfunctional and in need of reform. And he declared that he would be the one to kick off those reforms.
On that note, he dismissed as a failure a special EU summit last September in Bratislava where leaders discussed how to move forward after Brexit. It flopped, he said in an interview with Bloomberg, because it excluded ordinary people who want and deserve to have a say in the EU’s future. To allow that to happen, Macron proposes holding “democratic debates” in all 27 EU member states (he’s already excluding the U.K.). They could be held online or in person, and they would give ordinary Europeans the opportunity to say how they want the EU to work. People have “their own solutions,” Macron said. “They are able to say, ‘I’m not just for or against Europe.’”
His proposal has echoes of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), launched in 2012 to allow the European Commission to propose legislation based on citizen input. It was a good idea but ran into headwinds early on. Only three initiatives have garnered the required 1 million signatures to be considered by the European Commission, and “excessive institutional control” — not unfamiliar to anyone who’s lived in Europe — has stood as a major obstacle to the movement. But there are indications in 2017 that the ECI is being revived. Perhaps Macron’s En Marche will add new vigor to that revival.
Other ideas that Macron has floated for France and the EU include a belief that on issues such as energy and security that clearly transcend borders, sovereignty should pass from the national to the European level. On the single currency front, he has proposed creating a budget for the entire eurozone, which would be placed under the responsibility of a eurozone finance and economy minister and controlled by a eurozone parliament. Within days of Macron making his proposals, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that he was open to ways to radically change the eurozone, but cautioned that amending EU treaties to make those changes would be unrealistic, although he said a eurozone parliament might be feasible. Other officials in austerity-prone, risk-averse Germany have been lukewarm to the idea of ceding control over spending powers to a new eurozone entity.
In another proposal that might not sit well with EU powerhouse Germany, Macron has called for financial assistance to debt-ridden EU member states like Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. In a January speech at Humboldt University in Berlin, he also said the euro was nothing more than a “weak Deutschmark” and desperately needed fixing.
Despite differing opinions on how to fix the EU’s economic imbalances, France and Germany know they need each other if the bloc is to survive the onslaught of threats it faces, from populist insurgencies to a strained transatlantic partnership to Russian aggression. After Macron’s victory, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promptly called to congratulate him, and the newly minted French president’s first overseas trip was to Berlin, where the two leaders pledged to cooperate on reforming the EU. German officials also suggested working to reduce the country’s trade surplus with France and considering a eurozone budget that helps struggling member states.
But first, Merkel’s party must be re-elected in September elections so she can form a new centrist, pro-European government — only then will there be “a chance for these two nations to lead a consolidatory reform of the EU,” wrote Garton Ash in The Guardian.
EU officials from Athens to Zaragoza seem so heartened by Macron’s win that, at least on the surface, he has the goodwill to push through much-needed reforms. European Council President Donald Tusk of Poland said France had voted for “liberty, equality and fraternity” and rejected “the tyranny of fake news,” while European Parliament President Antonio Tajani called the French election result a vote of confidence in the European Union.
The defeat of far-right, EU-skeptic candidates in elections in Austria and the Netherlands earlier this year further boosted the beleaguered bloc, but experts warn that the EU shouldn’t get too excited just yet.
“The risk for European and transatlantic partners is indeed to expect too much too quickly from the new French president. The election of Emmanuel Macron is now perceived as a major success against anti-European and populist movements, but the French elections only add up to the recent Austrian and Dutch elections sequence, which cannot be proclaimed as clear victories against nationalism considering their political gains,” wrote Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer and Martin Quencez of the German Marshall Fund in a May 8 GMF brief. “Although Macron’s election does dissipate fears about the eurozone’s future in the short term, the structural causes of the rise of the National Front in France — fears of the identity and security impacts of immigration, demographic change, and general concerns over ‘uncontrolled’ globalization — will have to be addressed in the early stages of Macron’s presidency in order to confirm this positive dynamic for the European Union. ‘The EU must reform or face Frexit,’ as Macron put it, and the French presidential contest followed by the German parliamentary elections may offer one of the last chances for the European project.”
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor.