The rollercoaster electoral cycle that the French have endured for about a year under the scrutiny of the international media has finally come to an end, producing the swiftest and most thorough transformation of the French national political landscape since the beginning of the Fifth Republic nearly sixty years ago. It also holds the promise of long-delayed economic reforms in France and a new direction for Europe. At this early stage, whether Macron will deliver on his promises and start turning France around is everybody’s guess. Yet, the stakes for France and Europe could hardly be higher.
The election of Emmanuel Macron, the Obama-like 39 year-old relative political novice who ran as an anti-establishment, pro-European centrist, was a major surprise. Macron took advantage of the favorite center-right candidate’s embroilment in a scandal to appear as the best shield against a possible, although unlikely, victory of far-right populist Marine Le Pen. In the legislative elections that followed in June, Macron unexpectedly turned his fledgling 18 month-old grassroots political movement into one of the largest political majorities in modern French history, triggering an unprecedented renewal of the political class.
These two elections precipitated the collapse of the two parties that had dominated French political life for decades, the neo-Gaullist LR (Les Républicains) and PS (Parti Socialiste), as well as their respective leaders. Conversely, the far-right and far-left presidential candidates collected an unprecedented and ominous 44 percent of the vote. For the first time since De Gaulle’s return to power in 1958, France is now governed by the political center—the goal President Giscard d’Estaing failed to achieve in the 1970s. Macron improbably combines a Gaullist style with a political and philosophical centrism more typical of the Fourth Republic.
Macron’s impressive two-to-one margin of victory against far-right populist leader Marine Le Pen in the run-off of the presidential election has been celebrated internationally for stemming, at least temporarily, the seemingly unstoppable populist wave that had brought about Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. After Macron, almost single-handedly, ran as an unabashed pro-European candidate, his election helped dispel the gloomy image cast on the continent by the accumulation of crises such as the Euro-crisis and the refugee crisis as well as the threats of Vladimir Putin and Islamist terrorism, along with the rising anti-European Union sentiment in public opinion. Confidence that Europe might have a future after all has returned, but turning a hope into a reality depends on overcoming several challenges. France must revive economically, and Macron must cultivate enough common ground and resolve with Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz (depending on the outcome of the upcoming German elections) to reshape and rekindle the European project. Macron’s victory, as well as his first steps on the international scene, have already started to reshape the dynamics of European and transatlantic politics. But it has been only a start.
In France itself, the election of a young, charismatic, and reformist President, following the disastrous presidency of François Hollande and a lowbrow electoral campaign, is the rough equivalent of what John F. Kennedy’s election did in the United States in 1960. France’s international and self-image has benefited from its success in containing political extremism as well as Macron’s pro-European and pro-business orientation. From the outset, he successively embraced the “republican monarchical” demeanor the French have come to expect from their Presidents since de Gaulle.
Yet the French are all too aware that Macron’s success, in the midst of record ballot abstentions and rising extremism, rests on fragile foundations: the electoral cycle has further revealed as well as compounded the deep fractures that run through French society. This is why a majority desperately want Macron to succeed in bringing about promised change, all too aware of the consequences if he fails.
Macron’s mandate has crucially raised the prospect that the long-deferred and long-awaited economic reforms that France needs to rebound would finally be implemented. With a solid parliamentary majority, a results-oriented cabinet led by 46-year old Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, and economic growth gathering steam in Europe, Macron has seemingly no excuse to disappoint in the pursuit of his triple ambition: reforming the French economy, reconciling a fractured French society, and strengthening Europe—all closely interdependent goals. But a lingering doubt remains: Will he deliver on his promises or be another false hope, ten years after Nicolas Sarkozy?
Macron was a most improbable candidate to win the presidency: He hails from the discredited left; had been the protégé of the most unpopular President of the Fifth Republic, François Hollande, as well as the main shaper of his failed economic policies; he was an elitist “énarque” in an anti-establishment political environment; he ran as a centrist in a polarizing political culture and its two-round electoral system, and he had been an investment banker in a country wary of capitalism. Yet whereas his predecessors toiled their entire careers before reaching the supreme reward of politics, Macron succeeded at age 39, after a brief and meteoric rise and with his own brand new political movement. How to explain this very improbable success?
After the failed socialist presidency of François Hollande, voters expected a choice between a regular alternation of power from the socialists to the center-right and its candidate François Fillon on one hand, or a leap into the unknown with far-right populist candidate Marine Le Pen, on the other hand. With foresight and no shortage of luck, Macron’s youth, vision, and tactics prevailed. Macron sensed that Hollande would lack enough political support even to seek re-election, so in 2015 he took the bold step of launching a grass-roots political movement, “En Marche” (note Macron’s own initials), which was given virtually no chance to succeed by the sage observers of the French haute media. The confident Macron resigned as economics minister, criticizing Hollande’s timid economic reforms, before announcing his candidacy. Assiduously avoiding the trap of the socialist primaries, he instead pulled off a magic trick: He ran as an independent against the establishment he so perfectly incarnates.
Even skillful politicians need their share of luck to succeed. Macron would not have prevailed had three turns in the campaign not taken place, which he exploited with finesse. The first was the selection, in the primaries of the two mainstream parties, of candidates positioned on their respective outward fringes, which created a vast open space in the center. The second was the scandal that ruined the prospects of the center-right nominee François Fillon. Macron’s third bout of luck was paradoxically the qualification of Marine Le Pen as his opponent in the run-off. Macron’s job was “only” to cement a fractured but sufficiently large anti-Le Pen front on the left and center-right. Le Pen was too burdened by her unpopular proposal to exit the euro (opposed by more than 75 percent of voters) and her abysmal performance in the crucial television debate on the eve of the vote.
Such dramatic circumstances—and sheer luck—created the sense in public opinion that Macron owed his victory to Fillon’s scandal and the rejection of Le Pen more than to his own merits as a candidate or his policy agenda. That impression was compounded by the general feeling of a botched campaign centered on scandals and gossip instead of the thorough debate on France’s critical challenges the electorate had long sought, as well as an unusually low turnout. Macron’s narrow sociological base, “catch-all” electoral strategy and fuzzy agenda contributed to the criticism that the new President lacked a clear and strong mandate, if not outright political legitimacy.
Paradoxically, the unpredictable—and ultimately fortunate—emergence of Macron is the product of a long and deep political crisis in French politics. Beyond the upheavals of the campaign, French politics has undergone a profound transformation over the past fifteen years. The qualification of Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father and the founder of the far-right FN in the 1970s) in the run-off of the 2002 presidential election, at the expense of the expected socialist candidate, signaled the rise of the FN as the third pole of French politics, alongside the neo-Gaullists and Socialists. Most importantly, it put immigration, European integration and, more recently, the dangers of Islamist radicalism at the heart of the national public debate. Three years later in 2005, the failed referendum on the ratification of the European constitution highlighted the internal fracture of the mainstream parties over the direction of globalization and Europe. Under Sarkozy and Hollande, these parties emphasized neoliberal economic reforms (mostly on the right) as well as immigration and minority rights (mostly on the left), sending working-class voters into the arms of the FN, which opposed both. In less than twenty years, the more than century-old central cleavage in French politics shifted from the role of the state in the economy to the degree of economic and cultural openness.
The growing chasm that split the mainstream parties down the middle, and separated them from the FN, goes a long way to explain the failures of the Sarkozy and Hollande presidencies. Sarkozy proved unable to reconcile his moderate wing, advocating economic reforms and open immigration policy, with his harder line that challenged the FN on its own pet issues. As for Hollande, after uniting the left around a fierce anti-Sarkozy rhetoric (“the president of the rich”; “our adversary is finance”) to win the presidency, he could not avoid splitting it by shifting to a pro-business agenda less than two years into his term. Such internal tensions prevented France’s last two presidents from pursuing a clear and successful agenda.
The recent presidential election was the last straw. The primaries, which were meant to re-unite both parties behind a consensual leader and agenda, resulted instead in a further aggravation of their divisions. Two former Presidents and three former Prime Ministers lost as candidates in one of the two ballots of the primaries or the election itself, and all but one ended his political career; for the first time since 1958, neither the Gaullist nor the Socialist candidate qualified for the run-off. The visions of Macron and Le Pen were predicated on the imminent collapse of both parties, yet, they were the mirror image of each other: Macron wanted to transcend the right/left divide by bringing the moderates of both sides together into a reformist center, while Le Pen offered a radical alternative to both right and left which, she believed, had both pursued the same failed pro-European and pro-immigration policies despite regular alternations between them. Macron’s offering won out: The French electorate punished the establishment parties not because it disagreed strongly with their objectives, but because they failed to achieve their objectives.
This election brought the far right and the center back to the forefront of French political life for the first time since the Vichy regime and the centrist-dominated Fourth Republic. Macron revived the political center from the left after former President Giscard d’Estaing and presidential candidates Jean Lecanuet and François Bayrou had failed from the right. The option of taking over the mainstream center-left party and reforming it from the inside, pursued by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder in the 1990s, was not available to Macron, who had never been a party member, let alone an elected official. There are two main reasons why; first, the PS Mitterrand had repositioned on the left in 1971 was now beyond repair; Hollande was a more timid Schroeder who failed. But the second reason is that Macron has not been preceded by a reformer such as Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher: He has to play that role himself! Like De Gaulle before him, he is doing it with a brand new party and with the broad support from right and left needed to overcome a national crisis. Macron’s Third Way seeks to reform France, not a political party. Macron espouses a Third Way philosophy but a Gaullist ambition.
For Macron to be able to govern, winning the presidency was only the first step. In order to have any chance of implementing his agenda, he had to secure a majority in the legislative elections, scheduled for only five weeks after the presidential vote. In such back-to-back elections, the French have invariably given their new President a majority to govern. However, the challenge this time looked unusually difficult, since Macron’s new party lacked incumbents. LR, which had just lost “the election it could not possibly lose,” thought it could force a “co-habitation” arrangement (the President on one side, the majority and the Prime Minister on the other) to implement its own program instead of Macron’s. While voters had rejected the scandal-ridden Fillon, they liked his vision of a radical break with past socialist policies; LR also enjoyed a large base of incumbents.
But the powerful winds of change prevailed: Voters rejected the incumbents in favor of a younger and more diverse generation of candidates. In the first ballot, EM gathered 32 percent of the votes, more than Macron’s own 24 percent seven weeks earlier, while the other parties scored below their presidential candidates’ tallies. Despite their gains in the presidential contest—about 41 percent of the total vote in the first round—the extreme right and left parties lost momentum after their defeat. In the decisive legislative run-off, Macron’s coalition carried 62 percent of the seats, absorbing most of the traditional LR and PS constituencies: LR lost 50 percent of its seats, PS 90 percent, while the FN and far-left LFI gained only a handful of seats from a very low base.
The new majority is one of the largest ever achieved in modern French political history. It compares only with the Gaullist majority of 1968, the Socialist victory of 1981, and the one achieved by the center-right in 1993 at the twilight of the Mitterrand presidency. On the back of the EM tsunami, the National Assembly underwent one of the most dramatic renewals of its deputies, on a par with the arrival on its benches of the victorious war veterans of 1919, the left’s “Popular Front” of 1936, the “Resistance leaders” of 1945, and the Gaullists in 1958 and 1968. A whopping 72 percent of seats shifted, a result magnified by a new ban on holding local executive offices (such as Mayor) jointly with a parliamentary seat, which eliminated 20 percent of the incumbents. The new Assembly is younger (bringing the average age from 54 to 48), more female (40 percent), more ethnically diverse, and more open to civil society. For the first time since 1958, civil servants do not make up the majority of deputies, a revolution in and of itself!
Yet these elections also point to the fragility of the new President’s political base and legitimacy. Abstention was unprecedentedly high at 57 percent, the result of the long electoral season and the anticipated victory of Macron’s party in the run-off. But it also signaled a lack of enthusiasm for Macron and persistent distrust of politics among large swaths of the population.
A second weakness is paradoxical: The level of educational achievement of the new deputies has never been so high, especially in the ranks of EM. Despite Macron’s pledge to bridge the divide between the winners and losers of globalization, the latter are even more sparsely represented among the political elites than before. This can hardly help the new leaders hear the concerns and priorities of the most challenged sections of the population, the very same ones already tempted by political withdrawal or radical populism.
Finally, the expected over-representation of the winning party in a majority-based electoral system was amplified this time by the position of EM candidates in the strategic center of the electoral field: In the run-off, the voters who backed the losing candidate in the first round were inclined to vote for EM against the candidate of the opposite party.
As a consequence, the EM coalition may be too large for its own good. Oversized majorities are expected to lack cohesion and discipline, which is even more likely in an eclectic majority made up of political novices, a sprinkling of old-time centrists, recycled socialists, and neo-Gaullists. Yet EM had anticipated that challenge: It insisted that its candidates pledge support to all six reforms at the top of Macron’s agenda, including the reforms of the labor market, employment benefits, or pensions. If necessary, Macron enjoys additional leverage through his proposed reduction by a third of the number of seats, as well as the introduction of term limits and of a dose of proportional representation. He has even threatened a national referendum in case the deputies prove overly recalcitrant
Too small and fragmented an opposition also invites risks. With few troops, the extremist parties will rely on the populist rhetoric of their newly elected leaders, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But their main asset will be their ability and willingness to mobilize grassroots supporters, alongside the most radical labor unions, to fight Macron’s liberal economic reforms. Moreover, with an opposition…split on both sides of the overwhelming centrist majority, any alternation of power is unlikely outside of the least desirable far right and far left. The fragmented centrist parties that made up the majorities of the Fourth Republic took advantage of that danger by constantly blackmailing the government. However, the political landscape will be in flux for years to come, as the different parties are only starting to remodel themselves. Macron has successfully split LR between a pro-Macron wing, a more radical one likely to find common ground on immigration and identity with a renovated FN, and a mainstream one trying to reaffirm its Gaullist identity. The Socialist Party, squeezed between EM and the radical left, has been diminished even further than most other European social democratic parties and is fighting for its life. Even the FN’s momentum has been shattered by Le Pen’s disappointing performance and results in the run-off election. Her political line over the past five years, which emphasized national sovereignty and statist economic policies, is being challenged by the advocates of a return to its staple issues of immigration and national identity. Le Pen is about to abandon her controversial proposal to exit the euro and even change the party’s name. But the party’s isolation begs a rapprochement with LR’s conservative wing. In the medium-term, Le Pen’s continued leadership is up in the air. If it is to bounce back, the FN needs a renovated program, allies from within LR and new leadership. That will take time.
The far-left LFI (La France Insoumise) might therefore be the best prepared and most motivated opposition to Macron: It has an undisputed and charismatic leader, an anti-capitalist ideology, and enough activists to overflow the streets with demonstrators. Its eclectic constituencies prevent it from embracing a clear line on Europe and immigration and in the debate between secularism (“laicité”) and multiculturalism. Nevertheless, should Macron fail, LFI and its populist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon would be the most likely alternative. It is just as dangerous as the FN, if not more. In France, the radical left can be down, but it is never out.
But the main question of this post-electoral period is whether or not Macron’s first steps into his presidency will prove consistent with expectations. What pace and method will he choose to implement his first reforms, signaling the tone of his presidency? Will he follow in the footsteps of Gerhard Schroeder’s, the Chancellor who radically and durably turned the German economy around in the early 2000s? Macron appointed a discreet 46 year-old former center-right deputy and Mayor of the port city of Le Havre as Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe. Like Macron, Philippe is a graduate of the elite ENA graduate school, has had a stint in the private sector, and is versed in literature. The cabinet, made up equally of men and women, blends personalities from LR, PS, and centrist ranks as well as civil society. With the exception of the Economics Minister, Bruno Le Maire, none is a political heavyweight. The trait that most defines the new cabinet is its managerial character, which reflects its members’ background as well as Macron’s own concern with efficiency.
It is an understatement to say that Macron’s program was not front and center in his campaign. As one of his aides admitted, “the candidate is the program.” Macron deliberately pursued a catchall electoral strategy, carefully balancing ideas from right and left while avoiding the most controversial issues, such as the suppression of the 35-hour working week or the wealth tax. Compared with François Fillon’s program, Macron’s lacked detail, clarity, and ambition. His declared intention was to “adjust” rather than replace the failed “French social model,” in contrast with what his severe diagnosis of France’s faltering economy suggested. Margaret Thatcher is not Macron’s model!
Instead, Macron’s economic vision is a strange mix of the Californian and Scandinavian models: on the one hand, an embrace of start-up culture, a preference for entrepreneurship over rent-seeking, outsiders over insiders, and individual mobility over jobs-for-life; on the other, he evinces a belief in the positive role government can play to protect the weak and equalize access to opportunities. He wants to free companies from excessive bureaucratic costs and constraints in order to boost their competitiveness but has also pledged €50 billion of public investments. Overall, however, Macron’s pro-business attitude has few antecedents among past French Presidents: Only Georges Pompidou and Nicolas Sarkozy compare with him, and, like Pompidou, Macron has worked as an investment banker at Rothschild.
One of Macron’s priorities is to lower the un-employment rate (the only one in Europe which, until recently, had kept climbing since the 2008-09 recovery) from 10 percent to 7 percent, which would still be above the EU average and Germany’s less than 5 percent rate. In order to accomplish that, the mother of all reforms—for its political significance and its potential economic impact as well as its timing—pertains to the labor market, which needs much greater flexibility; employers will hire only if they can fire more easily. Macron also plans to shift negotiations on wages, benefits, and working conditions from the remote industry level, where labor unions enjoy maximum leverage, to the more concrete company level.
Here, Macron is in familiar territory. As Hollande’s Economics Minister, he had already spearheaded a labor market reform in 2015. But as a result of divisions in the socialist ranks and massive demonstrations by the radical left, the reform was watered-down. This time, the context could not be more different: Macron enjoys an electoral mandate for such reforms that Hollande never had. His main inspiration is the Danish model, which provides security to employees transitioning between jobs while letting companies adjust their job structure to the needs of the economy. This is Macron’s preferred method at work: He has set non-negotiable “red lines” while at the same time engaging in intense negotiations with labor leaders to preempt massive opposition. As announced during the campaign, when the prospect of having a parliamentary majority was slim, Macron plans to resort to executive decrees (which still must be authorized and ratified by parliament). He justifies circumventing the regular legislative process by the long 18-month delay before the first effects of the reform can be felt on the ground. But above all, Macron wants to avoid Gerhard Schroeder’s fate: his reforms paid off too late for his reelection and only benefitted his successor, Angela Merkel. But is Macron already conceding too much to the unions, as reformers and business interests fear? How successful will the radical labor unions and far left be in mobilizing opponents in the streets? Of course, Macron is keenly aware that his political credibility is at stake not just in France but in Brussels and in Berlin, and that disappointment could fatally compromise the rest of his presidency.
The same can be said of Macron’s fiscal agenda. France redistributes 56 percent of its GDP, on par with most Scandinavian countries, yet it paradoxically (and sadly!) combines high taxes with a debt of nearly 100 percent of GDP. Macron’s objective, over his five-year term, is to reduce the redistribution rate by 3 percent to 53 percent, as well as the budget deficit from 3 percent to 1 percent of GDP (Germany already has a surplus). Macron has been more specific and ambitious about taxes than on spending cuts. The general thrust of his tax cuts is to stimulate investment and consumption to boost economic growth: Local taxes will be lowered for 80 percent of residents, the corporate tax will be cut from 33 percent to 25 percent, a flat tax of about 30 percent—down from 50 percent—will apply to earnings from investments, and the reduction of payroll taxes paid by employers will be made permanent. However, those significant cuts are tempered by a campaign promise to raise an existing broad-based tax on all forms of income by 1.7 percent. Critics have pointed that Macron could have opted for spending cuts instead.
But until recently, Macron has refrained from emphasizing spending cuts and where the axe would ultimately fall. His five-year plan to eliminate 120,000 civil service jobs looked utterly modest compared with Fillon’s campaign promise of half a million.
It took the revelation by French public auditors in June that the 2017 deficit would slip from 2.8 percent to 3.2 percent due to Hollande’s election-year largesse for Macron’s conflicting budget priorities (and occasional lack of judgment) to become fully apparent. How was Macron going to decide between his budget commitment to Brussels and Berlin (if France failed to reach the 3 percent threshold, it would be the last country to comply now that Greece and Spain are expected to be under 3 percent this year) and the tax cuts he promised during the campaign? To the astonishment of most observers, Macron first announced he would postpone his tax cuts until 2019, therefore taking the risk of compromising his credibility in public opinion and among international investors, at a time when France is trying to lure bankers away from London following Brexit. Fortunately, he courageously backtracked four days later, realizing that cutting €5 billion in public spending was preferable to reneging on a fundamental political commitment. Yet as a result Macron suffered his first major political casualty with the resignation of the Chief of the Defense Staff, General Pierre de Villiers, who had challenged those unexpected spending cuts. But at least Macron did not repeat the mistake he and his boss François Hollande made in 2012-03, when massive tax hikes already aimed at bringing the budget deficit back to 3 percent of GDP stopped a fledgling economic recovery in its tracks, fueling record unemployment at a time when the rest of Europe and North America were reducing it.
Besides retooling the French economy for the long haul, another of Macron’s priorities is to reconcile a deeply fractured French society. Macron’s political centrism is an indication of his longing for common ground and his visceral dislike of conflict. Yet he has occasionally made comments hurtful to those stuck at the bottom of society. During the campaign, he provocatively affirmed there was “no French culture, only cultures in France” and, on Algerian soil, compared French colonization to a “crime against humanity.”
Macron’s campaign was focused on the candidate, the risk of electing Marine Le Pen, and the economy. As a result, Macron largely ignored the issues that preoccupy the electorate the most: immigration, crime, terrorism, and Islam. In a campaign dominated by scandals and personality clashes, these issues remained peripheral despite the continuing enforcement of the state of emergency triggered by the terrorist attacks of 2015-16. The only candidates to emphasize these topics, former Prime Ministers Manuel Valls and François Fillon, lost prematurely in the campaign for unrelated reasons. Even the FN preferred to dwell on its protectionist and anti-European agenda rather than capitalize on its traditional issues of immigration and radical Islam. However, a survey published in June titled “French fractures” confirmed that immigration, Islam, and the refugee crisis are the population’s number one concerns, ahead of unemployment: 65 percent of respondents think there are too many foreigners in France, 61 percent that they do not try hard enough to integrate into French society, while 74 percent believe Muslims are inclined to impose their way of life on others.
Such a backdrop seems to confirm the notion that Macron won the election by default. His emphasis on the necessary liberalization of the economy disproportionately reflects the preoccupations of the most urban, educated and prosperous sections of the population. But can Macron govern successfully in the long run while continuing to ignore such preeminent questions on the minds and in the lives of so many citizens, especially in rural and working-class France? Will this prove to be Macron’s Achilles’ heel? While he is about to unveil a reform to improve the efficacy of anti-terrorism policy, he has been reluctant to link terrorism with the growing presence of radical Islam inside and outside the banlieues. It could be that the constraints of political correctness, in France as well as in the United States and elsewhere, increase as generations turn, so that a youthful Macron’s sensibilities in this regard put him at some disadvantage politically.
For Macron, the recovery of the French economy and the protection of those left behind in the maelstrom of globalization will require more than domestic economic reforms. They also call for changes in the governance and policies of the European Union, as well as a restoration of French influence in Europe and the world.
Under the Hollande presidency, France’s influence in Europe was undermined by a weak economy and the lack of economic reforms. A stalwart European, Hollande had made the mistake of promising his anti-austerity constituents a renegotiation of the treaty on the European budget concluded just before his election. Not only did that attempt fail, but Hollande gradually lost the trust of Angela Merkel for not reducing the budget deficit fast enough and being too timid on reforms.
Like Giscard d’Estaing, Mitterrand, and Hollande, his most Europhile predecessors, Macron believes in a singular European civilization, Europe’s global role and its model of free markets tempered by a dose of welfare state regulation and redistribution. Far from being a political, economic, or cultural threat to France, Macron considers Europe the most effective way for France to leverage its power and influence. This is why restoring France’s damaged credibility with Brussels and Berlin is so crucial for him.
A relief and a promise, Macron’s victory has been welcomed enthusiastically throughout Europe, with reservations only in some east European countries. Macron has rebalanced and redefined the European and Transatlantic landscape. After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, a victory by Marine Le Pen would have raised the specter of a major financial crisis in the Eurozone as well as the unravelling of the European Union. Macron also rebalanced Europe away from the conservative regimes of Poland and Hungary within its borders, and the authoritarian regimes of Putin and Erdogan at its gates. Macron’s emergence has strengthened Europe’s unity in the wake of Brexit and Trump, as well as its global influence at the expense of a newly unpredictable United States.
However, future success will depend on Macron’s contributions to a revitalized European economy, a stabilization of the Eurozone, and a potential new form of Franco-German leadership. Macron’s short- and mid-term goal is for Germany to regain confidence in France’s ability to reduce budget deficits and pursue energetic economic reforms. Parts of Merkel’s CDU and some in its SPD coalition are still skeptical about Macron’s resolve, which is also the case of the free-market FDP. Only after the September 24 German elections will we see whether Macron can convince the Chancellor of the benefits of reforming the governance of the Eurozone in order to stabilize it. France has long sought to balance the technocratic and German-influenced European Central Bank (ECB) with an “economic government” comprising a Finance Minister, a parliament, and a Eurozone budget. These reforms have been anathema to most Germans (who fear their savings would be used to prop up the inefficient economies of Southern Europe), as Schulz was reminded after making imprudent and subsequently retracted overtures in that direction. If Merkel wins big in September, she might be willing to spend some political capital on Macron’s requests. The expected retirement of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the guardian of German monetary orthodoxy alongside the Bundesbank, would help. On this and other topics, it is ironic that France under Macron has embraced a more federalist vision of Europe, while Germany over the past few years has been sliding in the other direction, adopting a more intergovernmental approach. Perhaps they will seize a chance to meet in the middle.
A stronger France is in Germany’s utmost interest. France’s more than decade-long political and economic slide has left no option for Germany other than to lead more or less alone in Europe, a position it never sought or desired. Only a minority of countries, such as the Netherlands, Finland, and Austria, share Germany’s sense of fiscal rigor. Southern Europe has fought Germany’s monetary and budgetary priorities, and Eastern Europe opposed the refugee policy it imposed on the rest of the continent. In the past, joint Franco-German leadership allowed most countries a better chance at having their concerns taken into account or even shared. But conversely, Italy, Spain, and the smaller member-states often resented the exclusive dominance of the Franco-German duo. Today, most countries—even Poland, which fears being marginalized for not belonging to the Eurozone—agree that a broader leadership is necessary to manage the multiple and serious challenges facing Europe.
But even a more influential France in Europe does not mean Macron will get his way on the governance of the euro or other topics at the top of his European agenda. He has repeated that he wants a “Europe that better protects ordinary citizens.” This is why he is seeking a new regime for “posted workers,” an EU policy that encourages labor mobility across Europe by allowing Europeans to work in another country under the wages and working conditions of their country of origin, usually in Eastern Europe. But domestic workers have perceived this initiative as inviting unfair competition at a time of high unemployment in France and elsewhere. Recently, Poland’s political leaders criticized Macron for declaring that Europe was “not a supermarket.” This issue, refugees, the rule of law, the Eurozone, and European defense, will continue to deepen tensions between Eastern and Western Europe. Will Merkel and Macron be able to reverse the drift between East and West, or will they accentuate it?
Macron has also proposed to his partners a “Buy European Act” on the model of the “Buy American Act” on public procurement. To protect strategic industries, he has been inspired by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which screens foreign (mostly Chinese and Middle Eastern) investment into strategic U.S. companies. On all of these topics, however, Macron was rebuffed at the June European summit. But he is still determined to prevail. At stake is stronger support for Europe—as well as for Macron, of course—on the part of the French public.
The new environment created by Brexit and the elections of Trump and Macron has contributed to redefining the prospects of a collective European defense. With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, France will be the only remaining nuclear power and the only EU nation willing and able to project military power overseas. Brexit removes a nation skeptical of European defense, and Trump’s still unclear approach to NATO makes new initiatives all the more necessary to prepare for a more uncertain future. Eastern Europe especially has no option other than to rely on NATO. The French themselves are realistic about the lack of resolve of other Europeans. Under Hollande’s presidency, France has been frustrated by the lack of commitment of its European friends to assist in anti-terrorist military operations in Africa, either financially or on the ground. Macron hopes that as France tries to catch up on the economic front, Germany will gradually do the same on defense.
The only unity forged by Europeans since Macron’s election has been on a common position ahead of the Brexit negotiations. Although no additional country is considering leaving, Macron wants to make sure the UK does not enjoy the same privileges as a non-member as it did as a member. Yet the current unity is unlikely to last: The goal posts have been shifting on the British side since Theresa May lost her Conservative majority in recent elections. Moreover, fractures might resurface on immigration and refugees between Western and Eastern European nations, between Eurozone members and outsiders, and between Northern and Southern Europe on trade.
Since his election, Macron has wasted no time in establishing himself as a player on the international stage. Like De Gaulle and Mitterrand, Macron understands the symbolic dimension of power and seeks to reassert France’s traditional position as an independent power. Although a believer in multilateralism, he is a realist and a pragmatist. He has used the recent NATO, G7, and G20 summits, as well as lavish receptions of Putin and Trump in Paris, to gain credibility with other world leaders and get his message across. With Putin, he expressed strong condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Ukraine, interference in the French election (contrary to Trump, Macron was not the Kremlin’s favorite) and the persecution of homosexuals in Chechnya. With Trump, who made clear his preference for Le Pen in the election, disagreements on trade and climate change are accepted. Macron has indicated he would encourage Europe to retaliate against the United States if its commercial interests were compromised by unilateral U.S. sanctions against China, Russia, Iran, or any other country.
In fact, Macron has been striving to prevent Trump’s isolation from Europe and beyond. With Theresa May embroiled in Brexit and Angela Merkel invested in Germany’s upcoming election, Macron wants to be Trump’s interlocutor of choice in Europe. He is trying to foster a level of trust between them, which is one reason why he invited Trump to Paris for Bastille Day. France still needs the United States as the indispensable partner in fighting ISIS and terrorism in Africa and the Middle East. France’s desire to influence Middle East diplomacy, especially in Syria, requires close cooperation with the U.S. administration; for example, both countries now agree that Bashar al-Assad’s departure should no longer be a precondition to a political settlement in Syria, and both are committed to resorting to military reprisals if Assad uses chemical weapons again. The French believe Trump will be eager to show he is not as “weak” as Obama was in August 2013.
Emmanuel Macron’s election has positively redefined the political landscape in France, Europe, and across the Atlantic. But to consolidate these gains, he has to show courage, resolve, and no little retail skill in delivering on his promises. Failure to do so would be another missed opportunity, this time with potentially catastrophic consequences.