It would be tempting to try to portray the French presidential election as something other than a struggle of globalism versus parochialism, modernity versus nostalgia, tolerance versus intolerance, open-mindedness versus narrow-mindedness, education versus ignorance, ideas versus prejudices. Yet those issues are exactly what the French elections are about. The emergence of the progressive Emmanuel Macron as the front-runner in the first round of the presidential election on April 23, and his virtually assured victory in the second round on May 7, constitute a bulwark against the know-nothing populism which gave rise to Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
Macron and his France represent the triumph of the principles which have been championed by Western civilization since the 18th century. It is not too much to assert that the French election outcome heralds the revenge of the Enlightenment and its values of respect for people and ideas.
But it was a very close-run race and remains a tight contest in a deeply divided country. Macron, a 39-year-old center-left politician who has never before run for or won office and founded his En Marche! (Onward!) movement barely a year ago, outdistanced the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front, by only 23.9 percent to 21.4 percent in a field of eleven candidates. In the second, runoff, round Macron should poll 60-65 percent but not a landslide of 75-80 percent.
The traditional center-right party, Les Républicains, saw their candidate, former Prime Minister François Fillon, arrive only in third place with 20 percent of the vote. The traditional center-left Socialist party, of which the current French President François Hollande was once head, managed only 6.4 percent of the vote. Never before have both failed to make the second round.
The presidential elections will be followed immediately by legislative elections for the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, on June 11 and June 18. While the president of the Republic appoints the prime minister under the French Constitution, the prime minister then needs to form a government that receives a vote of confidence from the National Assembly. Since Macron’s movement, hardly even yet a political party, has no members in the National Assembly, he will have to craft a centrist majority around his program. This will be a major challenge and will require as much skill to pull off as his getting elected in the first place. Many of the Républicains might vote for Macron for president but refuse to back his platform in the legislature.
He may be helped by a quirk in French law that takes effect this year. Until now it was common for members of the National Assembly and the upper house, the Senate, to hold those national parliamentary offices alongside local mandates such as mayor of their town or councilor of their region. As of 2017, this accumulation of mandates becomes illegal. Consequently, around 40 percent of the National Assembly members will need to give up one of their offices in June and many have indicated they will keep their local responsibilities. This may give the new-look Macron an outsize chance of obtaining a new-look majority in support of a new-look government.
Macron’s program is social-democrat, not leftist. He wants to cut taxes, stress education, and cull public servants; and he preaches the value of work. France’s main problems are an education system that offers too little vocational training and suffers a high dropout rate, producing students unfit for employment, and a tax system and labor code that discourage risk-taking and business growth.
But, as international executives such as John Chambers of Cisco have stated, there is tremendous positive energy bubbling under the surface of French society and its economy. A gradual relaxation of these strictures by Macron will almost certainly produce sustained creativity and initiative.
Foreign policy begins at home
Macron understands that France needs to enhance its competitiveness to attract investment and achieve economic growth. Ditto Europe, France’s larger homeland. Macron is emphatic in his support of the European ideal, which will lead to a relaunch of the Franco-German partnership. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told Hollande and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, in private that she is ready for that partnership once France gets its reforms underway.
This devotion to Europe will mean a tough line in the Brexit negotiations, led by the urbane and highly professional Michel Barnier, a former French foreign minister.
Russia will get much shorter shrift from France and from the European Union than it would have if Fillon, for example, had become president. In that sense, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wily maneuverings seem to be coming undone in Europe.
In the wider world, France under a President Macron will maintain the continuity, predictability, and reliability of French foreign policy: legitimist, respecting international law, and promoting the universal values of the Enlightenment.
Nicholas Dungan is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Relations program. You can follow him on Twitter @Nicholas_Dungan.