The risks and uncertainty of a Macron presidency
Emmanuel Macron’s advantage in the first round of the French presidential election heralds a comfortable victory. Although commentators are cautious not to call it a day before the second round on May 7th, the vast majority of them expects the centrist candidate to beat Marine Le Pen by a 10 to 30 points margin. Macron has been endorsed by the entire centre-right and centre-left political class. If this outcome is confirmed, for the next five years France will have a young, liberal, pro-EU president.
Similar to that following Van der Bellen’s victory in Austria, or considering Merkel’s popularity in Germany and that of Trudeau in Canada, many pundits are prompt to hail another sign that populism can be defeated with an open, forward-looking agenda. Yet, the French have not suddenly become more liberal-minded. Macron does not really owe his success to a long and persuasive campaign for hearts-and-minds. Instead, he very skilfully seized a moment of profound disaffection against the political establishment and stormed the campaign.
Tactical voting led to Macron’s victory
It meant distancing himself from a deeply impopular President Hollande, who had previously hired him as a senior advisor before appointing him economy minister. Subsequently, Macron was ‘fortunate’ enough his centre-right rival, François Fillon, collapsed in the polls in February after fake job allegations against his wife led to a formal judicial inquiry. The disappointment with Fillon on the centre-right, the high score predicted for Marine Le Pen and a rather late and unconvincing Socialist bid by Benoit Hamon led many voters to cast a Macron ballot. The significance of this ‘tactical vote’ is reflected in opinion polls. A few days before the vote, Ipsos found that the main rationale behind the 26% of the French electorate voting for Macron was to prevent another candidate from making it to the second round. Only 43% said they were supporting a candidate they found suitable. This contrasts with 67% of Le Pen voters.
In other words, Macron’s expected victory is a choice of reason, and evidence that Marine Le Pen has managed to impose a restructuration of the French political landscape. Such a polarised country runs a high risk of tension and paralysis if the situation is poorly managed. President Macron would be ill-advised to ignore the powerful signal sent by 7.9 million French man and women voting for Le Pen (one million more than in 2012) and a huge number of communes and areas, especially in former industrial bastions in the North-East of France, where the Front National ended up first.
Big tasks ahead
Concretely, Macron will need to adjust his pro-EU rhetoric to a highly sceptical public, and handle the announced economic and social reforms with the utmost care. As the most unambiguous pro-EU candidate, Macron represents the perfect target for Le Pen, who does not hesitate to stress his links with the EU elite and his support for the status quo. The far-right candidate tirelessly denounces the EU’s unkept promises and the establishment’s incapacity to demonstrate that the euro is good for jobs and living standards.
As a president Macron needs to quickly demonstrate the EU can indeed be social
As a candidate, Macron needs to make clear he understands the French people’s concerns about the EU in order to broaden his following. As a president, he will need to quickly demonstrate that the EU can indeed be social. Supporting the revision of the posted workers directive to combat ‘social dumping’ and his endorsement of the Commission’s Pillar of Social Rights might not be enough. Hard choices will have to be made on the future of Eurozone governance. Macron recently criticised German export surpluses – an indication he will push Berlin to spend more or adopt a more growth-friendly attitude. Whether he manages to create a Eurozone budget, one of his key proposals, will be a major test.
Touching sensitive nerves
On a domestic level, the philosophy of Macron’s project is to take France from a bismarckian, insurance-based welfare system to a more tax-based, universal one inspired by Scandinavian flexicurity. On paper, such a vision makes a lot of sense in a society polarised between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. However, the envisaged revamps of the pensions and unemployment benefits systems risk touching very sensitive nerves. A lot of blue-collar workers today cling on to the rights that often go with their employment status or with their profession. In a context of high unemployment and significant career uncertainty, many of these ‘precarious insiders’ are likely to react very vehemently to the suggestion that their rights might be affected.
Emmanuel Macron’s expected victory on May 7th could thus prove a Pyrrhic victory for liberals, pro-Europeans and reformists if he fails to deliver change rapidly. The cocktail of EU integration initiatives and social reforms the centrist candidate envisages will be a difficult pill to swallow for French people. The political experiment starting in France is a fascinating one to watch, but simultaneously a situation full of risks and uncertainty.
This article is published with the support of the Adessium Foundation