Over 65% of the voters elected 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron as the next French president for the next coming 5 years. He was the candidate and founder from En Marche, a party founded in 2016 from the centrist, pro-EU and economically liberal views.
Macron received congratulations from around the world. Theresa May congratulated Macron via a spokesman soon after his victory: “France is one of our closest allies and we look forward to working with the new president on a wide range of shared priorities.” President Trump from US tweeted “Congratulations to Emmanuel Macron on his big win today as the next President of France.” Jean-Claude Juncker also expressed his absolute delight at a pro-EU president.
The French presidential elections follow a two-round system, whereby the top two candidates of the first round of voting progress to a final knock-out round. 2017 French elections were unprecedented because the two parties who progressed to the second round of elections were initially believed too marginal. Traditionally, presidents were elected from the Republican Party (formerly the Union for a Popular Movement) or Socialist Party. However, the discontent with the current president, Francois Hollande, decreased the support for the Socialist Party. Further, Francois Fillon’s scandal of paying his wife for an imaginary job caused the Republicans’ downfall. Both En Marche and the National Front were able to capitalize on this discontent, making political history by reaching the second round of the election and knocking out both of the traditional parties.
Both Macron and Le Pen were, in their own way, unorthodox candidates with drastically different views. Macron was the Finance Minister for the current president before resigning his role and founding his own party. He has never held elected office and, at the age of 39, will be the youngest ever French President. He advocates for the free market, embraces the European Union and supports an open-door policy towards refugees coming into France. On the other hand, Le Pen comes from a party that was previously considered toxic. Previously, the National Front represented the extremist, far-right views, supporting racism, protectionism and nationalism. After succeeding her father in 2011, Le Pen has de-demonized the party, by softening the image, focusing on national interest and diverging from the hard-core racism. She wanted to leave the euro, hold a referendum in Frexit and decrease immigration. Effectively, France voted between two candidates with completely disparate views and visions of what the country should be, with wide-ranging consequences for the EU and the ongoing migrant crisis.
On May 7th, the elections declared Macron as the next president, indicating that the majority of the voters preferred a liberal, outward-facing and pro-EU France. He has previously stated, “I’m a pro-European, I defended constantly during this election [on] the European idea and European policies because I believe it’s extremely important for French people and for the place of our country in globalization.” He has also stated that he will work “to rebuild ties between Europe and its citizens.” In terms of immigration, Macron proposed asylum requests to be processed in six-months whereas foreigners be given language lessons and integration programmes. Moreover, he wants to decrease the time taken to process “talent” visas which are given to skilled professionals looking to work in France.
In essence, Macron envisions France to be more integrated into Europe and more open to the world.
However, the nature of the two-round election system means that a vote for Macron did not necessarily equate to unreserved support for his economic and foreign policies. Macron now faces the daunting challenge of addressing the concerns of not only the sizeable minority of National Front voters, but also dissent from the far-left voters of the anti-EU Jean-Luc Melenchon, who see Macron as a continuation of a corrupt ultraliberal system that fed the rise of the far-right. He recognizes the division when he said, “we have to face the situation, to listen to our people, and to listen to the fact that they are extremely angry today. Impatient and the dysfunction of the EU is no more sustainable.” He promises “to reform in depth the European Union and our European project,” recognizing that, if failed to do so, “we will have a Frexit or we will have [Ms Le Pen’s] National Front (FN) again.”
The division within France was apparent from the low turnouts in the elections. The 74% voting turnout was lower than the first round and the lowest since 1969. The size of the abstainers highlights the extent of the voters’ disapproval regarding either party. Moreover, the presidential elections were peppered with demonstrations; during the campaign, many groups held protests against Le Pen while some anarchist and far-left groups demonstrated against both parties. Further, after the elections results, protesters who were against Macron’s pro-business policies clashed with the police. The unrest supports the extent to which France is divided. Comments, such as “not a single vote should go to Le Pen” from prominent left party politicians, fuelled, to some extent, the division by not supporting any of the two parties and encouraging abstention. The left-wing abstention indeed was gaining support with the “Neither Macron nor Le Pen” slogan, illustrating the extent of the political confusion.
France has chosen a president more open to the world, to immigration and to EU, but it is important to contextualize the event. Macron’s success was not necessarily because the voters truly believed in his policies but because they did not agree with Le Pen, and a great proportion of voters demonstrated against either party by refusing to vote. The people were divided in the elections and were forced into a situation where they had to choose “the lesser of the two evils.” Nonetheless, Macron has been elected: but he has been elected in a divided country and without an aid from a strong, established party. Consequentially, the majority in the parliamentary elections may not even support him wholeheartedly.
The lack of support is especially problematic when Macron has voiced some ambitious goals to change France. For instance, he proposed to decrease public spending from 57% to 52% of the GDP, cut 120,000 civil-service jobs and cut €60 billion of annual spending. He also supports reforming the Eurozone by introducing a common fiscal policy and a joint finance minister, trying to “relaunch a Europe that protects.” These proposals are radical and difficult to achieve especially in Macron’s current situation of a divided country.
Le Pen symbolized the rise of populism, nationalism and inward-looking policies. The ideology has proven to be supported in other parts of the world. For instance, United States voted Donald Trump as president and United Kingdom voted to leave the EU. It showed the vented anger of the public towards immigration and globalization. Despite the aforementioned two somewhat unexpected political decisions, France has not followed the ever increasing support for nationalism. Even with the massive hack attack against Macron on the eve of the elections, he has become the first French president in decades who was not from the Socialist or the Republican Parties.
However, Timothy Garton Ash from the Guardian said that “If Macron fails to reform France, in 2022 we may yet have a president Le Pen.” This begs the question of whether the current wave of populism has been completely eradicated or only subdued for the time-being. It will depend entirely on Macron’s execution as president and how he will change France during his five-years as the youngest Président de la République française.
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