ON SUNDAY MAY 7th, France elected 39-year- old Emmanuel Macron as its youngest ever President since Napoleon, after an election campaign which saw both traditional parties eliminated from the race in a hotly contested first round.
His victory is a personal triumph for a young man whom no one inside or outside of France had heard about until three years ago. It is also a victory, the world over, for those who feel dispirited by the twin blows of Brexit and Trump. In Europe, where Putin’s Russia is looming large in the East and Erdo••an’s Turkey is rising in the South while the US turns away, Macron’s pro-European stance offers reassurance that the values and identity that have shaped the continent since 1945 will stand up to attempts to erode them from within and without. This election was not only about France, or even Europe, it was, and is, about the future of freedom.
With 66 per cent of the vote, Macron’s victory looks at first like a landslide. But he is treading on very shaky ground. The election saw a record level 25 per cent of abstention, not seen since 1969, with many voters refusing to choose between what they described as “the plague or cholera”. Twelve per cent of votes cast were left blank. Add to these the 34 per cent gathered by Macron’s opponent, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, the result looks more like 46 -54 per cent. Finally, many of those who cast their vote for Macron did so in order to oppose Le Pen, not because they actually supported him or his policies. In this context, Macron’s victory appears less as a triumph, and more as a choice by default of a weary and confused electorate.
The President-elect seemed to acknowledge this as he addressed the crowds on the evening of the result, emphasising that “the task ahead will be difficult”. He also had a conciliatory word for those who supported his opponent and said that he will do his utmost to ensure that in five years-time no one will have reason to vote for extremes.
France is more fractured today than it has been for decades, and like the US and the UK last year, the election campaign echoed this fracture with unprecedented emotional and psychological violence, combined with the explosion of fake news and hacking attacks. In this climate the xenophobic nationalistic far right has found fertile breeding ground, feeding a desperate and impoverished under class with lies and false promises.
Whether Macron’s election is just a reprieve during which the far right will gather its forces and regroup remains to be seen. Either way, the characters involved are very likely to keep international political observers riveted as events unfold because both protagonists, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, each embody the battle of ideologies that is taking place on a global scale.
Emmanuel Macron was born on December 21st, 1977, to a middle class family of doctors in the Northern French town of Amiens, in the middle of a region deeply scarred by the battles of the First World War. After graduating from one of the most prestigious lycées in France (Henri IV in Paris), he studied philosophy and politics at university and finally attended the elite National Administration School (ENA) which has formed many of France’s presidents and covering elite. After a brief stint in the civil service, he became an investment banker for the famous Rothschild Bank, a position that has not ceased to earn him the criticism of many on the Left in France, who feel that this is evidence that in spite of this humanist veneer, he in fact represents the most ruthless aspects of rampant capitalism. In 2012 incumbent president Francois Hollande offered Macron a position as government advisor and in 2014 he became Economy Minister. During this time, he pushed through a controversial labour law liberalising France’s cumbersome labour code.
Although this was pushed through by a Socialist government, it was a far more ambitious project than anything achieved by the right wing Republicans during their tenure, and it met such resistance that it was eventually pushed through bypassing parliament, by invoking controversial executive powers within the framework of the constitution. But this has not stopped the Right from characterising Macron as a Socialist stooge, while emboldening those on the Left who see him as a heartless capitalist, determined to destroy France’s strong fabric of social protection. The fact that he elicits so much hatred from both sides of the political spectrum makes his rise and election even more spectacular, and also illustrates the difficulties ahead.
In 2016 Macron resigned from the government and set up his own political party ‘En Marche’ (translated as ‘Forward March’, or ‘Moving Forward’), that aimed to gather the Centre Right and Centre Left in a new centrist party. At first his bet seemed an impossible one to carry off in a country that has been dominated by the Socialists and the Republicans since the beginning of the 5thth Republic in 1958. But the disintegration of both mainstream parties secured him a place in the run-off second round against Le Pen. Added to this is undoubtedly his vigour and what his supporters call his “audaciousness”: he set himself an impossible and highly ambitious goal, and fulfilled it.
Macron will now have five years to win over not only those who voted for his rival, but those who refused to vote, or else voted against their own convictions to keep out the Far Right
In this contex it is worth mentioning Macron’s private life which is both controversial and evidence of his willingness to break the mould and reach for any goal he sets himself in spite of apparently insurmountable obstacles. His wife, Brigitte Trogneux, is his former school teacher and 24 years his senior. The couple first met when Macron was 15, although their relationship did not officially begin until he was 17 when Macron is reported to have said “whatever happens, I will marry you”. The fact that Trogneux was already married and a mother to three children, one of whom was older than Macron, and the other a student in his own year at high school, did not deter the young man. Today, the First Lady-in-waiting has been a prominent figure in her husband’s campaign, another first for French politics, and is likely to remain a significant guiding influence behind the new President.
Macron’s relationship with his wife has been the focus of much of the French press, and was even used by Le Pen in the final debate between the two candidates when she told him not try to play the “student-teacher game” with her. Macron remained unperturbed, as he did throughout most of the debate during which his opponent consistently attacked and belittled him and his programme, while offering little in terms of substance concerning her own programme. The debate, watched by 16.5 million viewers was “incredibly violent”, as described by one of the moderators, and seems likely to have definitely sealed the fate of Le Pen who came across as both unprepared and highly aggressive, confusing the euro with the ecu (the precursor to the single currency), muddling various industrial projects Macron had worked on (or not) while economy minister, and constantly interrupting him with snide remarks and allusions to offshore bank accounts that had already been debunked as fake news propagated by suspected Kremlin-backed groups. In fact, much of the campaign seemed like a rerun of the US presidential campaign, not only because of the clash of ideologies, but because of the level of interference of what appeared to be Russian hacking attempts in Macron’s campaign, and Russian support for his opponent. Two days before the election campaign, thousands of documents stolen from Macron’s campaign servers were leaked on the internet, and investigators point to the same group that hacked Hilary Clinton’s campaign. As for Le Pen, her flamboyant blonde hair and outrageous remarks are not the only similarity with Donald Trump. It has been public knowledge for months that a Russian bank supported her party with a 9 million euro loan, and she is an friend and admirer of Vladimir Putin.
Macron will now have five years to win over not only those who voted for his rival, but those who refused to vote, or else voted against their own convictions in order to keep out the Far Right.
The scale and nature of the challenge awaiting Macron can be illustrated via some of the most prominent moments of the campaign between the first and second rounds. The North and particularly the North East of France are home to most of Le Pen’s supporters. On April 26th, both Le Pen and Macron visited a tumble dryer factory in Macron’s home town of Amiens that is threatened with closure as its American parent company wants to relocate the plant to Poland. Le Pen arrived before Macron and stayed 20 minutes, promising picketing workers to put the company under direct state protection if she is elected and to levy a 35 per cent tax on French companies who manufacture goods abroad. This exactly what the workforce facing plant closure and redundancies needed to hear and Marine was greeted with cheers and a deluge of selfie requests
Macron on the other hand was booed and heckled when he arrived and had to endure angry tirades from local politicians and workers’ representatives as he plunged into the crowd head on. He explained why it would not be possible for him, if here were elected president, to impose state controls on factories or forbid exports and imports, as this would deter all foreign investment and dry up imports as well as exports, with consequential job losses. And although he did not win the gathered picketers over completely, his willingness to face his critics face on, unplanned and unprepared, won over a few of the striking workers, and elicited some grudging admiration. If he can show the same courage, honesty and determination over the next five years he may win over more than a few sceptics.
The next few weeks will be crucial for the Macron presidency as the country will once again go to polls in June to elect a new parliament. Macron’s party is just over a year old and has absolutely no parliamentary base. He will be fielding many candidates who are political novices, as well as some defectors from both mainstream parties. He needs a majority in order to govern and all bets are open as to whether he will succeed because the reforms he intends to push through will meet strong resistance.
The President-elect has already stated that he intends to continue liberalising the French labour code, which he sees as the major obstacle to reducing unemployment in France which is hovering close to 10 per cent (compared to 3.9 per cent in Germany) with 17 per cent unemployment in the under-25 year olds. He plans to force through labour reforms by decree, as early as possible in the Presidency, probably over the long summer holidays when trade unions and students will be less able to mobilise massive resistance.
This is where his project may stumble or succeed. By most measures in the developed world, Macron remains very socially aware and further to the Left than many so-called Left politicians in other parts of Europe or North America: he is in favour of leaving the current minimum retirement age at 62 (one of the lowest in Europe), of increasing certain social tax contributions and is making only modest changes to France’s wealth tax, which taxes assets over 1.3 million euros (about Rs 9 crore) irrespective of whether they earn income or not (including real estate assets). France still has one of the most generous, efficient and advanced health, education and pension systems in the world. The fact that he wants to leave most of this system intact has earned him harsh critics on the Right.
On the other side, the Left is already demonstrating against his ‘socially repressive’ measures with approximately 2,000 people marching in Paris on May 8th, the day after his election. Other presidents have eventually buckled under the pressure of France’s incredibly powerful culture of paralysing the country with marches and road blocks whenever the country’s generous welfare state is threatened. Unless he can overcome them, it is unlikely that he will be able to tackle unemployment, the prime breeding ground of discontent, and Le Pen’s electorate.
As his supporters like to point out, Macron has already achieved two seemingly impossible things: seducing a much older married woman against all social conventions, and ascending to be President in spite of having no party support.
There is a French saying that goes ‘never two without three…’ Perhaps he may make it after all, and all eyes will once again turn towards France in June as the country elects the parliament that could make or break Emmanuel Macron.