Curb Your Enthusiasm. The Road Ahead for Macron is Hard

Observers of France’s elections can breathe a sigh of relief. The first round on April 23 resulted in centrist, liberal Emmanuel Macron of the En Marche! movement taking first place. He will face far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, whose anti-EU, protectionist platform terrifies markets, in the runoff on May 7. The mere avoidance of a runoff between far-left and far-right candidates sent markets surging on expectations of a Macron victory in the second round.

But, even if surveys show Macron with an approximately twenty-point lead over Le Pen going into the second round, France is not out of the woods just yet.

First, the election will be a contest between those who want an open, globalized France and those who want a closed France. There are many—on the left and on the right—who prefer a closed France. In the next two weeks, Le Pen will throw the kitchen sink at Macron, including at their to-head debate. For sure, Le Pen faces an uphill climb to cobble together the electorate necessary to win, but it is still too early to call the election for Macron.

Second, a 60/40 victory by Macron will demonstrate how “normalized” the National Front has become in France. After his first-round victory, much of the French political class endorsed Macron to prevent Le Pen from winning. However, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon apparently sees no difference between Macron and LePen, refusing to encourage his followers to vote for Macron.

The National Front is here to stay and is now a major force in French politics. Marine Le Pen is reaping the benefits from a decade-long normalization process. Unlike former President Jacques Chirac, who faced her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2002, Macron has agreed to debate Le Pen. Polls show that she will double her father’s 19 percent score in the 2002 final round. The strength of the far-right comes at a time when the major center-right and center-left parties are weaker than ever before.

Third, as many commentators have pointed out, a Macron presidency will not mean he or his En Marche! movement will govern France. France’s president has decisive authority in foreign policy but is a largely symbolic figurehead at the domestic level without a supportive government. France needs a president aligned with a supportive legislature and government that possesses the mettle and mandate to bring economic and social reform to a country which has stagnated for nearly fifteen years. For that to happen, Macron must win the third round—the legislative elections in June.

Winning the legislative elections will be a hard task, although perhaps not impossible given the fact that the Socialist party and Les Republicains are both in a state of shock and drift. Macron’s performance in the second round may determine whether he develops the momentum to convince France to vote for the fresh faces who will represent En Marche! in the legislative elections. What is more likely is that he will need to preside over a country headed by a government not of his own party, or work with a coalition of parties. These “cohabitation” scenarios have been unhappy for past governments and would be unlikely to produce the kind of mandate, results, or policy coherence markets are looking for from France.

Fourth, even a strong and coherent government may prove unable to deliver the reforms France so desperately needs. The French public voted against its mainstream parties in part to sanction them for two consecutive failed governments that were unable to use strong mandates to achieve positive change. Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidency and his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party held a legislative majority from 2007-2012. That government largely failed to deliver the sweeping reforms Sarkozy promised. François Hollande, too, won the presidency and had a Socialist majority from 2012-2017. He, too, failed to produce the economic or social reforms needed to spark growth. In fact, Hollande will leave the Élysée Palace as the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic, loathed as much by his own party as by the right.

Finally, the resistance to reform will be strong on the streets. The results of the first round should serve as a warning sign for those hoping for economic reforms coming from Paris. Nearly 50 percent of the electorate voted for extremist candidates from the left or right who oppose the European Union or structural economic reforms to labor markets or the state. Many on the far left will sit out the second round of the election, as they cannot bring themselves to vote for either a far-right or pro-globalization candidate. But you can bet that they will come out into the streets to oppose what they would see as any “neoliberal” reforms by Macron if he were to win the presidency. In such a scenario, LePen and her party will serve as a formidable opposition against Macron, whose tepid defense of traditional French culture and values is a vulnerability with a conservative electorate.

The pro-Europe, pro-business crowd should be happy that French voters have an option for a pro-European candidate who aspires to reform France and its sclerotic politics. Clearly, he is a man of great talent, energy, and ambition. That’s a good thing, too because he will need every ounce of it—plus a little more good luck—to truly set France on the path to reform and economic recovery and succeed where his predecessors have failed.

Jeff Lightfoot is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. You can follow him on Twitter @jeffdlightfoot.

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Image: A combination picture shows portraits of the candidates who will face each other in the second round of the French presidential election on May 7—Emmanuel Macron (left), head of the political movement En Marche! and Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front. (Reuters/Christian Hartmann)