Emmanuel Macron: 5 Things the New French President Must Tackle
Is it too early to breathe a sigh of relief?
Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron may not have very much in common (or much affection for each other), but one life lesson does unite them: sometimes, you can get a job that — on paper — you’re technically under-qualified for.
A 39-year old with no history of elected office was voted into office as president of France on Sunday. The country’s youngest ever president, Macron defied expectations by launching his own political party just over a year ago, En Marche! (On the move!) — a dramatic journey that ended with him walking to victory against the iconic background of the Louvre. But Macron is a man used to challenging convention, from his unconventional marriage to his unconventional CV, boasting experience working as an “assistant to a philosopher” and as an investment banker.
After campaigning as “neither left, nor right,” Macron has delivered another blow to the rise of right-wing populism that helped swing the Brexit vote and propelled Donald Trump to the White House. Following in the footsteps of Austria and the Netherlands, he defeated France’s homegrown populism by gaining 66% of the final vote over Marine Le Pen’s Front National. On a platform blending liberal social values and economic pragmatism in an open and inclusive form of patriotism, he managed to defeat the tide of insularity and xenophobia threatening to drag France to the extreme-right.
But none of this was predictable one year ago, and the next steps for France’s leader are hardly written in stone. After a campaign that resisted “politics as usual” to offer something fresh, he now faces both new and old challenges that will define the success of his political gamble. Things are moving quickly — En Marche has already changed its name to “La République en Marche” (The Republic on the Move), but these obstacles will test how far the republic he inherits can really move forward with him.
1) He is currently the only elected member of his party.
As his party is barely a year old, Macron currently has no members of parliament. Without parliamentary support, he will not be able to implement his agenda of reform. Elections will take place in two rounds on June 11 and 18, but he is not guaranteed to win an outright majority. The Socialist party currently holds 258 seats, against the centre-right Republican party, which holds 185.
But En Marche is putting forward candidates in all 577 parliamentary seats. In an effort to bring French politics to the 21st century, half of those running for En Marche will be women and half will be newcomers to politics. The latest polls suggest he is on track to win the most seats in the legislative election — and perhaps after his decisive presidential victory, there’s reason to trust the pundits again.
2) It will be tough to put France back together again.
France’s two-round voting system means Emmanuel Macron was only the first-choice candidate for a quarter of French voters. Although he gained 66.1% of the vote in the second round, many were not En Marche enthusiasts, but rather, people who could not bear to see Marine Le Pen rise to power. Macron inherits a fiercely divided country, with large swathes of discontent in the industrialised north and the rural south. As an openly pro-EU, internationalist candidate, he narrowly fought off challenges from both the far-Left and the far-Right candidates who ran on anti-globalisation, Eurosceptic messages, and gained 40% of the first round vote combined. If he is to reunify France, he must address the grievances of citizens opposed to the future his vision embodies.
3) A third of voters voted for the far-right.
And 11.5% decided to spoil their ballots or leave them blank rather than vote for Macron or Le Pen. Despite Sunday’s defeat, 2017 is the Front National’s best year on record. The last time the FN made it to the second round, the far-right party only gained 17% of the final vote, as the French decided they’d rather vote for a “crook than a fascist.” This time, almost a 10th of voters felt the choice was even less promising, declaring themselves “ni patrie, ni patron” (not for the nation, not for the boss) — rejecting Le Pen’s extreme nationalism and Macron’s past as an investment banker.
While he presents himself as a relative outsider, many on the French left believe he will do little to challenge the social inequality that has pushed people to the fringes. In his victory speech, he reached out to his rivals’ supporters, saying he recognized their “anger” and “anxiety” and promising to respond to their needs too. “I will do everything I can in the next five years to make sure that they no longer have a reason to vote for the extremes,” he said. Macron may have won the battle, but the next five years will decide whether he can win the culture war dividing French identity.
4) Can he get a slow economy moving too?
With a 10% employment rate and prolonged economic stagnation, France’s economic woes will be a fierce test of Macron’s program. Based on his campaign promises, he seeks to improve efficiency by toeing a delicate balance to satisfy workers while enabling businesses to thrive. Rather than scrapping the controversial 35-hour maximum working week as he tried, in his brief stint as finance minister, he wants to allow greater flexibility to employers to negotiate contracts directly with employees. He also promises to phase in public-sector and corporation tax cuts more gradually than his former rival, Francois Fillon, intended to. Still, in a country famously beset by strikes, satisfying workers’ interests is no easy task.
5) He needs to prove he is not too good to be true.
Charming and persuasive, Macron is often praised for his rhetoric and vision. However, these strengths may also prove a weakness if he fails to convince the French parliament of his concrete policies. His critics argue he is too keen to satisfy everyone — he seemed to nod in agreement while all his rival candidates spoke during TV debates — and claim his campaign lacked detail. After his meteoric rise to the top, defeating populism with an optimistic patriotism that looked forwards rather than back, Macron will need to offer more than words to satisfy the country whose future is in his hands.