Opinion Op Ed 16 May 2017 Macron’s test: To ...
The writer is a lawyer and a keen observer of European affairs, and works in the UK and France

Macron’s test: To retain the magic

Published May 16, 2017, 3:18 am IST
Updated May 16, 2017, 3:18 am IST
Mr Macron fought his campaign on an unashamedly pro-European platform.
French President Emmanuel Macron with wife Brigitte Trogneux.
 French President Emmanuel Macron with wife Brigitte Trogneux.

Just over a week ago we learned that liberal-centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron had been elected President of France. He had overwhelmingly won the second round run-off against nationalist Marine Le Pen, with some 65 per cent of the vote. Let's be clear, this is unequivocally good news for Europe and for France — or at least for the time being.

First Europe: Mr Macron fought his campaign on an unashamedly pro-European platform. When he gave speeches, behind him on the platform were the French tricolour and the European Union's golden stars. At his victory parade the European anthem was proudly played. This was in stark contrast to Ms Le Pen.
Ms Le Pen chose to play on people's fears of economic and social change. She presented a false prospectus, claiming that security could only be assured by the destruction of Europe's single market and single social space. Her programme of economic protectionism and narrow nationalism was profoundly defeatist, as well as profoundly wrong. If each nation retreats into its own silo, looking only to its own interests, all nations will be worse off; politically, culturally and economically.
Mr Macron understands that in today's globalised world the European model — the tripartite combination of political liberty, social solidarity and economic prosperity — can only be preserved and pursued if Europe coheres. He has proposed a much closer European economic cooperation — a common European fiscal policy. He has mentioned a “Buy European” policy in public procurement. He favours greater integration of environmental and social regulation. The point is not whether these policies may be right or wrong — they are largely right — but rather that Mr Macron sees Europe as part of the solution, not part of the problem. We can look forward then to a renewed emphasis on European unity from France, one of the most important players in the European Union.

 

It may be added that Mr Macron considers Britain’s decision to quit the EU as certainly harmful to the UK and potentially to the EU as well. Entirely justifiably, he will therefore be firm in ensuring that the benefits of EU membership are not extended to a state that leaves. European cohesion requires nothing less.

Although Mr Macron was generally supportive of British economic liberalism, the UK can expect no special favours from Mr Macron during the Brexit negotiations.
Then consider France: The opinion polls had predicted a higher vote for Ms Le Pen, somewhere in the region of 40 per cent. In the event she achieved barely a third. The fact only two regions voted by a majority for Ms Le Pen, and then only by the smallest of margins, was a deep disappointment for her and her entourage. One of the party’s stars, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Ms Le Pen's niece, has now decided to leave politics. Ms Le Pen’s failure to fulfil expectations is also leading to ructions inside the Front National. There are proposals for a profound transformation of the party, though these are likely to meet stiff resistance. For the far-right to be in deep disarray, after having set the tone of political discourse in France for some time, can only be good for French democracy.

But Mr Macron’s victory may also lead to ructions elsewhere. Mr Macron was elected without the backing of a major political party. Although he had been the minister of the economy and finance in the socialist government, he resigned from his post and party affiliation in 2015. He founded his own loose party En Marche! (Moving Forward), but it does not have either the well-established structures or deep roots of the traditional parties. For the first time since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, there was no candidate in the second round from either the moderate-left or the moderate-right. In fact, the combined vote of Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the moderate-left Socialist Party, and François Fillon, the candidate of the conservative-right Republicans, in the first round amounted to only just over 25 per cent. It seems that the liberal-centre, a major force in French politics from the 1870s to the 1950s, has been resurrected.
Or has it? Although Mr Macron won convincingly, more than half his vote came from supporters who would have preferred another candidate. Their prime motivation for supporting him was to prevent a victory for Ms Le Pen. This could be a problem for Mr Macron. On June 11, the first round of elections to the National Assembly, the French Parliament, will take place. The second round run-off takes place a week later. Enthusiastic and optimistic as the En Marche! candidates are, they lack experience. Around 95 per cent of them are not deputies (National Assembly members). More than half of them have never stood for election to the National Assembly before. For the most part they do not have experienced party machines behind them. Will their enthusiasm and optimism be sufficient to attract support from electors whose support for Mr Macron is only lukewarm?

If it is not, then Mr Macron's presidency could end in tears. Although the French economy is highly advanced — its workers are some of the most productive in the world — it suffers from high unemployment. Mr Macron's solution is essentially economic liberalism. He wants to lower corporate tax rates, which he considers are holding back investment and growth. Rather than impose uniform employment conditions, he would leave it to firms and employees to negotiate specific deals on working hours and pay. He would seek to lower employers' compulsory contributions to social funds to lower the cost of taking on workers.
Whatever the merits of these policies, they are likely to lead to a confrontation. The French left, particularly the hard-left, is not shy of taking to the streets to defend what it considers to be inalienable rights to social protections; and it has already done so. The day after Mr Macron's victory there were demonstrations organised by the hard-left in several of France's major cities against Mr Macron's economic policies. Mr Macron will need the support of the National Assembly to get his domestic reforms through. If it is dominated by deputies from parties jealous of his victory, he is unlikely to get it. If Mr Macron cannot implement his reforms, disillusion in France with democracy and Europe may soon become poisonous.

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