On May 7, France elected 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron as president, the youngest in the country’s modern history. He won with over 66 percent of votes cast. As a former Rothschild banker, presidential adviser and economy minister, he is very much a scion of the French establishment. He is part of the urban elite and value system. He won on the back of a movement, not an established party. He founded En Marche! just a little over a year ago.
Macron painted a picture of hope. His was a positive vision of economic reform, social inclusion and multilateralism. He is a strong proponent of the EU and the euro, and wants France to assume her rightful position in the union. He said he wanted to take the best ideas of the right, left and center of French politics. In his detractors’ words, he wanted to be all things to all people, which down the road might become the undoing of his popularity.
Macron’s opponent Marine Le Pen of the populist, far-right Front National (FN) managed to get shy of 34 percent. She may have lost, but her party managed to gain close to 11 million votes. Last time her party made it to the final stage of the presidential election, it only managed to obtain 7 million votes. That was in 2002, when her father faced off against President Jacques Chirac.
Her vision was one of a France in the olden times. She ran on a platform that put security, anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiments front and center. She wanted to leave the euro should she be elected.
She was popular in rural districts and had fans on the international stage, namely Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. When the result of the vote was announced late Sunday night, one could literally hear and feel the sighs of relief emanating from the capitals of Europe, especially Berlin and Brussels.
Last year saw established party landscapes in many Western democracies put into question. It was the year of movements: Brexit and Trump’s election. Traditional parties did not reach their goals, and pollsters fared even less well. There was a marked shift to the right: The Tea Party and alt-right in the US, the Alternative fuer Deutschland in Germany, the Freedom Party in Holland and the FN in France.
When the victory of Emmanuel Macron was announced late Sunday night, one could literally hear and feel the sighs of relief emanating from the capitals of Europe, especially Berlin and Brussels.
In France, the left was deeply divided between the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon and the Socialists, who were riding on the back of President Francois Hollande’s unpopularity. The traditional center-right Republicans party moved to the right when it nominated the socially conservative, Euroskeptic Francois Fillon as its candidate. He was popular.
But a scandal about overpaying family members out of state coffers for political services rendered became Fillon’s undoing. So for the first time in modern France neither of the established parties, the Socialists or Republicans, made it to the final round of the election.
It broke with the tradition of the presidency alternating between the two parties. It was essentially two movements, one on the extreme right and one in the liberal center, which made the race to the finals.
Europe was deeply shaken after the Brexit vote, and taken aback when Trump got elected. Anti-EU sentiment seemed to be gathering momentum on both sides of the Atlantic. The turning point came when Dutch elections returned Prime Minister Mark Rutte back into office. His People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy decisively beat the ultra-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders.
The French presidential election reinforced the reversal of fortune in anti-European sentiment. Still, Wilders’ party ranks second in the Netherlands. Britain is poised for Brexit, which will prove to be a painful experience on both sides of the Channel. As for France, it is not over yet: On June 11, the French will elect a new Parliament. Whereas France’s president has sweeping powers, experience tells us that coalitions tend to achieve little.
It will be hard for Macron to obtain a majority in Parliament, given that En Marche! does not yet have the apparatus of an established party at its disposal. Furthermore, during the last stage of the presidential election both the Socialists and Republicans supported Macron, mainly in opposition to Le Pen’s extreme views. Now they will run their own candidates on their own tickets. The FN and the Left Party are also back in the fray.
For the time being Europe may have stemmed the tide of populism, but between fickle majorities, German elections, Brexit, the Greek debt crisis and the Italian banking crisis, the summer of 2017 promises to be politically hot.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert.