The French presidential election campaign delivered as many twists and turns as a soap opera. But it ended with an air of predictability. Emmanuel Macron polled two thirds of votes cast compared to Marine Le Pen’s one third. There was no late surge from Le Pen. Her performance in the only television debate between the two rounds illustrated how difficult it is for radical right leaders to move from being the anti-system candidate to serious contender.
Le Pen and her entourage will take some solace from the fact that she polled around 11m votes in the second-round run-off – 3.4m more than in the first – but the result will nevertheless be perceived by some in the Front National inner circle as disappointing. Given the ongoing difficulties in the eurozone, France’s high unemployment rate (particularly among the under 25s), the refugee crisis, the terrorist security threat, Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the prevailing demand-side conditions could not have been more favourable for the Front National. This is, after all, a party whose whole campaign was built around the notion of a perceived cleavage between globalists (as represented by Macron) and patriots (as represented by Le Pen).
Although Front National strategists such as Florian Philippot have always had one eye on the long-term game and the possibility of victory in 2022, it’s not a given that the Front National can continue to grow in electoral terms if the demand-side conditions do not remain as favourable. The party has worked tirelessly to detoxify its image over the past decade but doubts remain as to whether an historically anti-system, radical-right party is capable of positioning itself as a party of government.
Govern and unite
Much will of course depend on whether Macron can heal the divisions in France that were so evident during the campaign. His first priorities will be logistical. He must choose a prime minister and seek a mandate at next month’s legislative elections.
Given that a majority of his voters in the second round would have preferred to back an alternative candidate, securing a majority for his fledgling movement, En Marche! (just renamed La République en Marche), in the National Assembly will be far from straightforward. Macron may well be forced to reach out to sympathetic socialists and centre-right républicains to obtain a working majority in the lower chamber. The latter, following the defeat of candidate François Fillon in the first round, will be looking to re-establish themselves as the biggest party in the National Assembly.
The logistical problems of obtaining a working majority to fulfil his campaign pledges will be just the start of the challenges facing Macron’s administration. While his campaign (and others for that matter) have demonstrated a dilution of the traditional French left-right cleavage, the result has only served to underline the social fracture that exists in France. This is well illustrated by the distribution of the Macron vote. It’s no coincidence that around nine out of ten voters backed Macron in London and Paris. How he reaches out to those citizens who remain static in their social mobility, many of whom feel disconnected from and alienated by globalisation, will be crucial.
In his manifesto, the new president emphasised educational and economic reform as a means of generating social and economic mobility. But the stark reality is that such reforms may prove difficult to implement in a country often hostile to major structural change.
The European question
One of the strategic problems facing Macron, and one central to the so-called “globalist versus patriot” tension, is how to pitch the European question. Although the French electorate doesn’t seem ready to jettison the euro, it has become increasingly sceptical about the role of the European Union. Macron (a self-proclaimed europhile) was not scared to wrap his campaign in the European flag. He even played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the EU anthem) as he delivered his victory speech.
Le Pen has, in contrast, increasingly used opposition to the EU as a strategic driver in an attempt to widen the party’s electoral base. This has been a particularly successful tactic in the north of France, where post-industrial unemployment makes it difficult for many to see economic globalisation in a positive light.
How Macron deals with the European question will be crucial to the success of his presidency. He has stated that strengthening the Franco-German axis is central to his project – something which most of the electorate are likely, at least for the time being, to tolerate. However, Macron will also need to convince his doubters, including some of the 12% who either spoiled their ballot papers or failed to mark them, not to mention the quarter of the registered electorate who did not vote in the second round. To help win them over, he must demonstrate that he is prepared to fully embrace the reform agenda which the EU has often tried to dodge.
Solidifying the eurozone and developing the EU’s defence and security arm are obvious directions of travel but Macron will also need to demonstrate that he is prepared to visit more contentious issues if he is to keep the electorate on board. In talks with EU leaders, he shouldn’t shy away from re-examining the Schengen area and developing a more robust EU-wide response to the EU’s horribly high levels of youth unemployment.
And while it would take a bold French president to seek radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, perhaps now is the time for boldness. France has a historic, protective stance on the CAP, but it continues to gobble up nearly 40% of the EU budget. Diverting those funds into tackling social problems in EU nation states remains something of a pipe dream.
Failure to fully embrace the reform agenda within the EU could soon damage Macron’s popularity ratings. France is at a crossroads. The direction it takes under Macron will have a massive baring not only on the future of the nation, but also on the future of the EU.