French President Emmanuel Macron. (AFP)
The French presidential elections last Sunday had more than the normal significance for many reasons. Under the two-stage system, the run-off between the two leading candidates had thrown up extreme right-wing populist Marine Le Pen against incumbent President Emmanuel Macron. The election was held against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
President Macron won by a fairly comfortable margin of 58.2 per cent to 41.8 per cent for Ms Le Pen, but it was smaller than when he had won the presidency for the first time in 2017. However, this is the first time in two decades in France that a President has been re-elected. Since Charles de Gaulle created the Fifth Republic, only two other Presidents have been elected to multiple terms — Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1988 and Gaullist Jacques Chirac in 2002.
However, the fact that Ms Le Pen had garnered 13.3 million votes cannot be ignored by the winner, who was seen as lacking in empathy and perceived as a technocratic, distant figure. France remains deeply divided and needs healing. It is estimated that 70 per cent of affluent people voted for Mr Macron, while 65 per cent of the poor went with Ms Le Pen. Even more significantly, around 70 per cent of the 18-24 age group voted for leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came third in the first round and got eliminated.
The whole of Europe appeared to heave a sigh of relief after President Macron’s win as a Le Pen victory would have been a setback for multiple reasons. Ms Le Pen has been known to lean towards Russian President Vladimir Putin, and sceptical towards both the European Union and Nato. Her victory could have dealt a death blow to the idea of Europe, which was already severely damaged by Brexit, after the British decided to leave the EU.
US President Joe Biden, in his congratulatory message to Mr Macron, put his finger on the other important factor. He said Mr Macron’s win will help "to defend democracy". The victory earlier of Viktor Orban as President of Hungary had raised concerns in Europe about populists capturing more space in the EU. Mr Orban claimed after his win: "The whole world has seen tonight in Budapest that Christian democratic politics, conservative civic policies, and patriotic politics have won. We are telling Europe that this is not the past. This is the future."
Coincidentally, in Slovenia, a three-term populist Prime Minister Janez Jensa was also defeated by an alliance committed to liberal democracy.
From the foreign policy perspective, Ms Le Pen as President would have caused disunity in Nato’s collective stand on firmly opposing Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. Ms Le Pen has always been an unabashed fan of President Putin.
Unsurprisingly, a Hungarian bank lent money to Ms Le Pen’s party for the French election. The populists were holding hands to spread their control over more and more EU nations. France is holding the presidency of the EU till end June. It is expected that Mr Macron will steer the EU towards an oil embargo on Russia.
Mr Macron’s personality and style have invited analysis as a lead-up to the election. The Economist magazine summed it up as follows: "He is solitary, he decides everything alone". That approach covers policy, diplomacy, appointments, etc. This may make Mr Macron appear like a distant emperor, but it helps him deliver on pledges in his election manifesto. He could act, sometimes not successfully, to loosen the labour market, cut taxes, end the pension privileges of railway workers, and to encourage investment. He also sometimes succeeded when defying the conventional approach. He reopened schools two months into the Covid breakout. He imposed a "Covid Pass" that most people felt would not work, but saw vaccination rates rise above the levels in other EU nations.
So, what does the second Macron presidency mean beyond Europe? His basic vision will be same, encompassing multilateralism, the rule of law, Nato and a commitment to European strategic autonomy. The last may be contested as most European nations are happy to have the US involved with European security after the Ukraine war. India has, since the days of Indira Gandhi, felt comfortable in dealing with France due to its being half-in and half-out of the European alliance system. When India conducted its nuclear tests in May 1998, the French foreign minister was in India. France protested the least out of the five UN Security Council permanent members. That is why, besides Russia, for big defence platforms like Air Force planes, India used France to reduce dependence on a single nation. India will be more comfortable with a strategically independent France, even within Europe.
Mr Macron may now try to be more collegial in running France but by temperament he is a technocratic doer. On environment, he will push harder as not only does he believe in it, but he also needs to woo younger voters on the Left and the Greens. His diplomacy often leaves his partners in EU scratching their heads. He has been keeping a channel open to Mr Putin and may try peace-making again.
India can feel reassured that a known pair of hands are at Elysée Palace to keep Indo-French relations on an even keel. France is an important source for technology in the defence, aerospace, and civil nuclear sectors.
Mr Macron’s centrist positioning holds lessons for India. Since 2015, 245 people have died in Islamist terror attacks, some conducted brutally in public. He has still not let the extremist right-wing hijack French politics. True, Ms Le Pen has increased her vote percentage, but countering a populist leader who uses a mix of bigotry and xenophobia is no cakewalk. Mr Macron’s personality-based, highly centralised, pledge-oriented politics, neither left nor right, can be compared to Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party. Mr Macron also instituted school reforms, which halved the class size and introduced school breakfasts.
Mr Macron is also looking at some populist measures that provide relief to the common man like gasoline rebate. He probably realises the danger of governance from within a bubble. He has elections to the National Assembly coming up in June. If the Opposition seizes control there, he will find it more difficult to implement his agenda. France was angry but has voted with its head, realising that a Le Pen presidency would cause great disruption in times of war and pandemic, that Mr Macron handled well. Punjab voted with its heart and may yet regret it. Meanwhile, India needs to search for a Macron of its own.