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Macron Marches On Towards Next French Poll

08 May 2017
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
Macron's victory speech crowd. Photo from Arnaud Devigne‏'s Twitter account.

Emmanuel Macron achieved a strong victory over Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections on the weekend. While he is not the novice some pundits make him out to be, he does face serious challenges in the months and years ahead.

Less than a year after forming his centrist En Marche! party—and contradicting punditry that sees voters in the West favouring the populist policies of Trumpism and Brexit—Emmanuel Macron, 39, becomes the youngest president of France since Napoleon Bonaparte.

His victory over Marine Le Pen came after he and his far-right opponent had scalped the two main parties that have governed France since the end of World War II: the centre-right Republicans, once led by Sarkozy and Chirac, and the Socialists, whose fumbling leader, Francoise Hollande, leaves the Elysee Palace this week.

Macron’s first taste of political power was when Hollande persuaded him to become his economics minister in August 2014. It was this brief experience, following success as an investment banker, that taught him that crony socialism would not solve France’s enduring economic and social ills and that he’d best find a way to tackle them himself.

Macron’s immediate challenge is to win seats for En Marche! in the French parliamentary elections, which are just weeks away. Without representation in the parliament, he will have to rely on the votes of the Socialists and the Republicans, and that will come at a price. Yet winning seats will be much tougher than beating Le Pen.

Macron will appoint a prime minister before his inauguration. A considered choice will help, but life will become much tougher when implementing policies designed to make France more efficient and competitive. Changes to France’s traditional work practices, such as the 35-hour week, and the country’s generous welfare program will be resisted by the hard-left. It will fashion the kinds of strikes and disruptions that hamper French industry and have lifted unemployment to above 10 per cent, compared with 3.9 per cent in Germany.

Macron said on Sunday that he would put the republic first, but this was not the equivalent of ‘America First’ in Trump-speak. This French president thinks before he opens his mouth. To describe Emmanuel Macron as a novice—as some Australian media have done—is itself naïve. He has been crafting a route to the top since his time at the ENA, the elite higher education institution that grooms France’s top public servants. He was mentored by Michel Rocard, a former innovative socialist prime minister. He is not your usual politician. And one of his closest advisers is Brigitte, his wife, 32 years his senior, whom he seduced when he was still at school and she was his teacher.

Macron is a change activist. He is a globalist but, like his supporters, staunchly pro-European. He marched onto the stage at the Louvre to make his victory speech to the sounds of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the anthem of the European Union. “Tonight, France won. Europe and the world are expecting us to defend the spirit of enlightenment”, he proclaimed.

While in no way embodying the grandeur of Charles de Gaulle, Macron sees the future of France as a significant joint leader of a revitalised European Union, setting aside the stagnation and infighting of recent years. He envisages the EU using its cultural, technological, agricultural and political muscle to reaffirm what it already is, the world’s biggest single economic block.

Hence we may expect to see the revival of the European project, rather than its expected decline. It is interesting, but perhaps academic, to speculate whether the narrow British vote in favour of Brexit might have gone the other way had it taken place this, rather than last, June. The kind of European Union Macron favours is certaintly closer to that sought by David Cameron and Tony Blair, if not Theresa May.

Macron has been particularly scornful of May’s remarks that, “if you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. He will not detract from the hardline negotiating stance adopted by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker and his point person, Michael Barnier, a former French minister.

It is relevant that the new French president has put transforming Paris into a serious financial capital as one of his priorities, casting covetous eyes on London’s lunch. The lucrative business of clearing derivatives’ trades may move to the French capital, and several international banks have plans to shift staff. Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Feinstein warns London could “stall”. If Macron can ease regulations and reduce Parisian taxation, the pressure on Britain’s biggest export industry will grow.

Macron faces two immediate international challenges. There will be the inevitable first encounter with President Trump, who was a partisan supporter of Le Pen during the campaign, largely because of her anti-Muslim, anti-globalisation and anti-EU stance. The first meeting should be later this month at the NATO summit in Belgium.

On that agenda will be another challenge for Macron: the EU’s relationship with Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian president of Russia.

In his election campaign, Macron bought into the worldwide concern about Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, declaring, ”We will not submit to Russia or Mr Putin’s values, which are not the same as ours”. Macron pledged to keep EU sanctions on Russia for interfering in Ukraine until a peace process negotiated in Minsk last year is fulfilled.

Another enduring problem is immigration. Hundreds of thousands of migrants are roaming around Europe looking for work and a home, or living in camps. Many thousands more are risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean, many of them paying criminal gangs for the dangerous passage.

Like most people movements, the migrants break into two groups: those seeking a better life somewhere other than their homeland and those fleeing war and persecution. So far, EU countries have had limited success in distinguishing genuine refugees, fleeing terrible confliucts like those in Syria, Yemen and Somalia, from those taking their chances by moving from countries like Albania or those in North Africa in search of a better life.

The European Union’s attempts to solve the problem by sharing out the refugees among member countries have failed, with Germany taking the largest numbers and France enduring the heaviest unemployment pressures. A fragile deal with Turkey allows Greece to send back new boat arrivals in return for EU payments to Ankara, but there is a steady stream of new arrivals from North Africa through Italy.

Many of those move on to France where they join earlier, largely Muslim, arrivals, who live in what are described as ‘sink estates’ in some of the country’s most crowded cities, especially Paris and Marseilles. Gilles Kepel, author of Terror in France: the Rise of Jihad in the West, has said that Macron will confront “a profound fracture of the French identity”.

After the sweetness of a stunning victory, Emmanuel Macron faces some tough calls.

Colin Chapman is immediate past president of AIIA NSW. As a former economic correspondent at the BBC and a senior executive at the Financial Times, he spent much time in Brussels covering EU issues and still maintains close connections with policymakers.

This article draws on a presentation by Colin to AIIA NSW on 26 April 2017.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.