Summary: Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election cannot distract from the fact that many challenges remain. President Macron’s most pivotal challenge in terms of governance will arrive in June. Meanwhile, in the midst of a major realignment of the French political party system, the Front National is not gone yet, and widespread dissatisfaction can still lead to its return
Walking out to the strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, with the majestic backdrop of the well-lit Louvre courtyard, Emmanuel Macron probably felt a sense of joy himself. At 39, he had completed a meteoric rise in politics by winning the second round of the French presidential election with around 66% of all valid votes cast. The former civil servant, investment banker and minister of economics will thus become the youngest President of the French Republic since the current French constitution was introduced in 1958. Another first occurring with Macron’s victory will be the fact that he will be the first candidate to not hail from one of the major established parties of the centre-right and the centre-left, which had essentially alternated in power for much of the Fifth Republic. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to refer to the 2017 race for the Elysée Palace as truly historic.
However, not everyone was inspired by the machinations of the leading candidates. Of the 47,568,588 registered voters, around 16,170,672 opted to either stay home or cast an empty or spoilt ballot – which may have been caused by the extended holiday weekend and disillusionment about the candidates. Overall, the share of abstaining voters, combined with those submitting spoilt and empty ballots, amounts to approximately 34% of the French electorate. This amounts to the lowest turnout in a French presidential election since 1969. Finally, even though Macron soundly beat her, Marine Le Pen still almost doubled the Front National’s vote share in the final round of a presidential election from her father’s paltry 18% in 2002 to 34% in 2017. Let’s also not forget the first-round score of left-of-centre, Eurosceptic firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who scored 18% in the first round of the vote.
The choice was between Macron, an unabashedly pro-European, social-liberal candidate favouring a more flexible economy (something considered anathema by many centre-left and left-wing voters), closer ties to Germany; and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the nationalist Front National who had run on a platform of reducing legal immigration to 10,000 entrants a year, renegotiating the European Treaties (and instigating a national referendum on EU membership), leaving the Euro (although she strongly equivocated on this issue between the two rounds of balloting) and amending the French constitution to mandate a priorité nationale (national preference) for French citizens over jobseekers from other countries.
Le Pen: Unforced Errors
In the end, following on the heels of the United Kingdom’s plebiscitary decision to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s surprise election as President of the United States, Ms Le Pen was not able to follow up with a winning performance herself. She committed a number of unforced errors: her performance in the presidential debate with Macron was deemed too aggressive and unpresidential – whilst this didn’t hurt Donald Trump across the Atlantic, French voters had different ideas about what they would prefer to see in their nation’s next leader. What was worse, though, was the fact that Ms Le Pen seemed to be on uneven ground when it came to her command of facts and economic data. Instead of clearly, calmly and persuasively explaining what she herself stood for and how she would set about realizing her governing agenda, she resorted to invective, personal attacks against Macron’s past as an investment banker and used her time to ineffectively tie him to deeply unpopular President François Hollande. For the Front National candidate, this debate was a wasted opportunity, as her performance (or lack of it) backfired on her.
Whilst some of her tactical moves during the second-round campaign (like naming her rival Nicolas Dupont-Aignan as a prospective prime minister in case she won; or stealing publicity during Macron’s visit to his hometown of Amiens) were noteworthy and unconventional, she could never overcome the stigma attached to the FN – both by the antics of her father, longtime Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, but also herself (for instance, when she appeared to trivialize Vichy France’s culpability during Nazi atrocities committed during the Second World War). The Front played with the fires of nationalist passion, but found itself short of supporters – moderation in tone and articulating a realistic strategy for governance (not wishful thinking and consistent resort to incendiary language) could have caused a dangerous turn towards the nationalist right. In the end, the centre held – also, because unlike in the United States, there are institutional safeguards against a populist temptation: a two-round majoritarian election system based on the popular vote, stringent campaign finance rules and strict equal-time laws (in news reports, campaign ads and the time each candidate can use during presidential debates) certainly did their part to prevent the sensationalist reporting that helped fuel Mr Trump’s rise to the presidency.
Lessons from Obama
Consequently, the responsibility of leading France in one of its most difficult times has now fallen on the shoulders of its youngest leader. Mr Macron’s energy, charisma and media savvy is reminiscent of another young politician – that one hailing from the South Side of Chicago who first became a state senator, then a US Senator and, in one of the most remarkable campaigns in American history, President of the United States: Barack Obama. Kindred spirits in more ways than one, Obama’s two terms as President can serve as both inspiration and warning to the Man from Amiens. Even though many constitutional details are different, there is one thing the United States and France have in common: You cannot be a highly effective President unless you secure an outright majority in your legislature. Obama enjoyed decisive majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate from 2009 until the congressional elections in 2010. Much got done, including the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to only mention two examples of presidential success in those years. But that ended with the Republican triumph in the 2010 mid-term elections, when the Republican Party assumed control of the House of Representatives in 2010, followed by Senate control in the 2014 election. From those points onwards, the Obama agenda came to a screeching halt.
Mr Macron could now face a similar situation – and much sooner: In order to be able to govern effectively, President Macron will require a majority in the National Assembly. In 2002, as a result of a constitutional amendment, the terms of office of the President and the National Assembly were aligned in order to avoid the problem of cohabitation – essentially a form of divided government in which the presidency is held by a member of one party and the cabinet (consisting of the prime minister and other ministers) consists of members of another party (or, as the case may be: parties) that has won a National Assembly majority. Cohabitation governments have occurred in three instances during the Fifth Republic (in 1986-1988, 1993-1995 and 1997-2002). If a President’s own political party does not possess a majority in the National Assembly, then his/her ability to effectively implement his programme for government is severely impaired. In times of cohabitation, the domain of foreign affairs is seen as presidential in nature, whereas all domestic policy issues are handled by the prime minister. Up to now, since the introduction of the aforementioned constitutional amendment, every single French President since 2002 has been able to rely on his “own” majority in the National Assembly. But that’s where the problems could start for Mr Macron.
According to an exit poll conducted on Election Day, 43% of voters stated that their reason for voting for Mr Macron was to prevent Ms Le Pen from becoming President, with a stunning 84% conceding that they were not persuaded at all by his policies. In another remarkable figure, around 49% of participants in an opinion poll stated that they did not want Mr Macron and his En Marche (On the Move) movement to win a majority of the National Assembly. The central challenge is the fact that En Marche has only existed for the past year or so, and does not possess the same organizational strength as established parties like the Socialist Party, the centre-right Republicans and the Front National. The future President is also faced with the dilemma that due to the exceptional nature of his second-round candidacy – being the only one standing between Marine Le Pen and the Elysée Palace – a wide range of political leaders rallied around him. They will expect to be accommodated in some way. At the same time, Macron also needs to square this with his promises to ensure that half of all En Marche candidates for the National Assembly will be women, and that most of them will be political newcomers.
As if that were not enough, the President is unlikely to get a honeymoon period from the voters or his political competitors: the established parties of the centre-left and the centre-right, already leaderless and in disarray due to the failures of their respective presidential candidates, will be looking for a rematch in the National Assembly election. The Front National is also looking to make major waves: in her first remarks after losing the election, Ms Le Pen announced her intent to form a new political party with a new name – in order to rally the voters who voted for her towards the nationalist right.
Due to France’s two-round electoral system (albeit slightly different from that used in the presidential elections, in that up to three candidates can end up in the final round in each parliamentary constituency), chances are that the Front’s support will be nowhere enough to form a majority or even be among the top 2 finishers in the Assembly. Instead, it is likely that they will accelerate the decline of the centre-left Socialist Party – many of whose voters have deserted the party for En Marche or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-of-centre Unsubmissive France movement. Thus, it is suffering from the same phenomenon as Germany’s Social Democrats, the Dutch PvdA and the United Kingdom’s Labour Party – questions being raised about the rationale for social democracy in the 21st century. The centre-right Republicans (LR) also have questions to answer about their strategy: arguably, Marine Le Pen was also able to siphon votes from the LR candidate François Fillon – outflanking him on security and immigration from the right, and social security from the left. The two parties have overlapping electorates, and the question for the LR will be whether it will forge an alliance (formal or tacit) with the National Front, especially in constituencies where a right-wing candidate could beat En Marche or a left-wing candidate.
Much will depend on the outcome of the National Assembly election. In case he wins a majority, the coherence of Mr Macron’s governing agenda will be assured. However, if he has to enter into a period of cohabitation with another party (as of the latest opinion polls, most likely to be the Republicans), then his radius of action will be severely hampered. However, the disintegration of the Socialist Party, the rise of the Front National and En Marche and the stagnation of the traditional centre-right could also result in a hung parliament – in which case France, the second-largest Eurozone economy, would suddenly enter into a period of unprecedented political instability. The best strategy for governance in such a scenario would be the appointment of an independent caretaker Prime Minister and the search for changing majorities on a case-by-case basis. But the recipe for stability this certainly is not.
Until the National Assembly elections, the new President has to name a caretaker prime minister – whose identity will already provide clues about how President Macron intends to govern once he has been inauguarated this coming Sunday. France’s problems remain: many voters feel insecure, in terms of their economic mobility and their personal security. Unemployment, terrorism and the right approach to defining France’s national identity (including in its relations with the rest of Europe) will mark the President’s immediate challenges in office. Marine Le Pen remains a formidable opponent to the new President – one statistic should give pause to anyone believing that the risk of the nationalist right winning the presidency has been eviscerated by Mr Macron’s decisive victory: Ms Le Pen won 56% of all working-class voters, 69% of voters “just getting by”, 45% in the lowest income percentile, 47% of unemployed voters and having secured the support of at least one-third of all voters in every single segment of the electorate. Macron, on the other hand, easily won higher-income, higher-educated voters. A tale of two Frances – and a story we have already been able to observe during Brexit and the 2016 presidential election in the United States:
President-elect Macron has his work cut out. His challenges are many. There is much to do. Many of the economic reforms that he championed (cutting 120,000 civil service jobs, reducing the budget deficit, greater labour market flexibility) during the campaign are (if history is any guide) likely to face determined resistance from trade unions and other special interests. Given the widespread disillusionment among the French with their political leadership and the state of the economy – and the nationalist challenge that has been put into abeyance, not slayed indefinitely – one can only hope that he will be able to provide the effective leadership needed to restore balance to the French political debate.
Muddling through will no longer do.