This weekend’s election in France has narrowed the field of 11 candidates to two: the most anti-EU candidate, nationalist Marine Le Pen, and the most pro-European candidate, centrist Emmanuel Macron. For the first time in the almost 60-year history of the Fifth Republic, neither the mainstream Left nor the mainstream Right will have a candidate in the second round of the presidential elections. Although Macron is the candidate who promises more continuity with the policies of the previous government than any other, he founded his own political movement only a year ago, and has never previously held an elected office. But although Macron is the strong favorite to win, a look at the broader context shows that his election may only be a temporary reprieve from the nationalistic, anti-EU sentiments that have been rising across Europe.
The runoff election was the most recent in a chain of events that will have transformed the political landscape of France. In just a few months, the country has peacefully thrown out almost all of the leading figures of its (former) political class. The incumbent president, François Hollande, was so irreparably unpopular that he was forced to not seek a second term. The primary elections for the candidate of the mainstream conservative party, the Republicans, eliminated the immediate past president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and a former prime minister, Alain Juppé, while those of the Socialist Party disposed of Hollande’s former prime minister, Manuel Valls. The first round of the presidential elections has now delivered the coup de grâce to the last survivor, Sarkozy’s former prime minister, the scandal-ridden François Fillon, who late last year looked as if he only had to stay on his feet to succeed Hollande as president.
All of this reveals the extent of the public’s rejection of the French political establishment. France has followed the precedent set in Austria’s presidential election last year. The old Left and Right political divide, based on social class, has at least temporarily been displaced by one between a nationalist, economically and culturally closed, and authoritarian France, for which Le Pen stands, and an internationalist, economically and culturally open, and liberal France, which the younger, former private banker Macron incarnates. On the one side is struggling, pessimistic, small-town, and semiurban France; on the other, the France that is “winning” and optimistic, especially well represented in the big, globally connected cities.
No candidate in the elections fought on such an unabashedly pro-European platform as Macron. His anticipated victory in the next round — polls suggest that he should secure no less than 60% of the second-round vote — should make it politically feasible for the EU to pursue more “pro-integrationist” strategies to combat the euro zone, refugee, and other current crises. Especially if the German elections in September go to the Social Democratic chancellor candidate, Martin Schulz, the Franco-German tandem that is indispensable for any effective crisis management in the EU could be reenergized. Even if the Germans elect Angela Merkel for a fourth term, the tandem may develop more momentum than in the last decade. (Owing to domestic financial and political constraints, neither Sarkozy nor Hollande could emulate the kind of role played by earlier French presidents, such as Valéry Giscard in the 1970s and François Mitterrand in the 1980s and early 1990s.)
But Macron can only play this role and establish an equal partnership with Germany if he turns around the economic and social fortunes of France. Since the global financial crisis, the economic disparities between France and Germany have widened. The most striking manifestation of France’s economic ills is the rate of unemployment, which, at almost 10%, is twice that of Germany, the UK, and the U.S., and which affects almost one-quarter of French 18- to 25-year-olds. Its public debt has also been rising faster than that of its neighbor across the Rhine.
Can Macron, if he is elected, address these problems and deliver the kind of change the French public seems hungry for? It’s unclear how much he wants to, despite his rhetoric. Macron was Hollande’s closest adviser for two years, and then his government’s minister for the economy for two more. In these functions, Macron held significant responsibility for the business-friendly U-turn in economic policy — before finally deciding to mount his own political movement and presidential bid out of alleged frustration at the obstacles he faced trying to reform the French economy more radically and rapidly. He now aspires to loosen business regulations and restrictions, but without curtailing employees’ rights or existing levels of collective social welfare provision. He intends to limit the government budget deficit, but at the same time increase public spending in some areas and reduce a range of taxes and social insurance charges on firms and their employees. He has said little about the €60 billon of government spending cuts that would be necessary to reconcile these conflicting objectives.
It is conceivable that, once in office, Macron will try to be a bolder market-oriented reformer than his background implies, fearing that otherwise his presidency may be destined to end in failure, like Hollande’s. However, his room for political maneuvering after parliamentary elections in June may prove very limited.
That’s because, as a practical matter, Macron will find it very difficult to form a stable government. Macron’s political movement, En Marche! (On the Move!), will field candidates in all parliamentary districts, but currently has no MPs. Macron has pledged that half of his candidates will be members of “civil society” with no previous political party parliamentary experience. It is highly unlikely that, starting from scratch, he will win a majority of parliamentary seats. Otherwise, to form a government backed by a parliamentary majority, which he will need if he is to avoid being a lame-duck president, he will have to win over MPs from the ranks of moderates from the Socialist Party on the left and/or moderates from the conservative Republican Party on the right. Such a majority is unlikely to prove very stable or robust, especially if, after the initial honeymoon period, the public is disappointed by the results of his economic policy, and the incentive for MPs to support him correspondingly diminishes.
Paradoxically, after a campaign in which, to mollify a profoundly unhappy electorate, virtually all candidates had to sound as if they were running against “the system” or “the establishment,” it looks as if France will choose, in Macron, the status quo candidate. If his presidency fails, it will likely mean even more disaffection with the status quo — and that, one after the other, the mainstream Left, Right, and Center will be judged by French citizens to have failed in office. That could mean that although Le Pen will almost certainly fail in her presidential bid this time, the prospects for her party may be even brighter in 2022.
A different version of this essay appeared in INSEAD Knowledge.