For Macron, the Hard Part Starts Now

Emmanuel Macron’s election as the next president of France marks a defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a setback for the wave of populism that has swept the West, but France is not out of the woods just yet.

“Vladimir Putin emerges as a loser,” said Daniel Fried, a former US assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia. Russia is believed to behind a massive cyberattack on Macron’s campaign days before the election.

Fried added, “whether or not [Macron’s victory] is a strategic turning point depends on how well Macron does.”

Fried participated in a phone briefing hosted by the Atlantic Council on May 8. He was joined by Jean-David Levitte, a former French ambassador to the United States; Laure Mandeville, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative; and Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, for a discussion on the French elections and the implications of a Macron presidency for France, Europe, and the United States. Alina Polyakova, director of research for Europe and Eurasia at the Atlantic Council, moderated the conversation. Damon Wilson, executive vice president for programs and strategy at the Atlantic Council, provided opening remarks.

On May 7, Macron was elected with 66 percent of the vote; his far-right National Front opponent, Marine Le Pen, won 33 percent.

Macron’s election “is a political answer to the challenge of populism,” said Haddad.

While not posing a direct repudiation of the populist sentiments which swept US President Donald J. Trump to the White House, “Macron has refined the politics of protest in a way that undermines the theory that populist reactionary options are the only options,” in a country seeking change, said Fried.

Now, “the real hard work is how you actually reform France, and in turn Europe,” said Wilson.

The rejection of Le Pen’s populism may constitute a rational decision by the French people, said Mandeville, but she cautioned that “we should not be fooled by these results if he doesn’t deliver” on campaign promises, a feat that will prove nearly impossible without the necessary parliamentary majority.

“If he doesn’t deliver, we could have very big problems in five years’ time, and even before,” according to Mandeville. Five years marks the term of office of a French president.

While Macron positioned himself as a pro-European centrist, Mandeville cautioned: “I think it would be a mistake to make too much of Macron as a pro-European leader.” She described how nearly half of the French electorate voted for candidates who campaigned against greater European Union (EU) integration in the first round of the presidential election.

On the issues of border security, migration, and counterterrorism, “there has been a lot of criticism… about the power of Europe,” she said. These issues must be a major priority for Macron in light of the string of terrorist attacks on French soil in recent years. However, according to Mandeville, “Macron is aware of this.”

A split electorate

The result of the election demonstrates a deep divide in France’s political landscape, said Levitte.

Polyakova described the dynamic as a divide between the urban populations who largely supported Macron’s pro-European stance, and the rural areas of the country more drawn to Le Pen’s rightwing nationalism.

While many around the world breathed a sigh of relief following Macron’s election, “now comes the political part,” said Levitte, who has served as a former diplomatic adviser to former French presidents, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. He noted the mood in Macron’s camp after the election as celebratory, but also cautious.

Mandeville described Macron’s reaction to his victory as a mix of optimism and “complete awareness of the difficulties he will face.”

Levitte claimed that with the “implosion of the center”—a reference to the collapse of French President François Hollande’s Socialist party and the fact that neither Macron nor Le Pen represented one of France’s traditional center-right or center-left parties—France’s political landscape will pose significant challenges for Macron’s new administration.

In order to deliver on the reform agenda he promised on the campaign trail Macron must build a parliamentary majority in France’s National Assembly elections in June.

While the speakers on the call agreed that forming such a coalition will be a difficult task for Macron—the president-elect’s En Marche! is a new party with no presence in parliament—Haddad expressed his optimism that it can be achieved.

“We need to find allies, and we need to find help to deliver the reforms he promised,” Mandeville insisted.

As a result of the “new political order,” which has become the reality in France, Levitte said it will not be until after the results of the National Assembly elections that onlookers will be able to determine France’s political future.

Macron will be inaugurated on May 13.

A boost for France’s allies

While he will face significant domestic political challenges, Macron’s election is a welcome development for France’s European and transatlantic allies alike.

“I will not underestimate the challenge Macron faces, but his election throws a new dynamic in Europe and in the transatlantic relationship, and a hopeful dynamic at that,” said Fried.

Fried said Macron will have a strong European ally in German Chancellor Angela Merkel as they both “stand for a strong Europe with a strong transatlantic alliance.” However, the EU and the transatlantic relationship have been called into question by the Trump administration and the rising tide of populism throughout the West.

Through a partnership with Macron, who, according to Fried, “represents, perhaps, a new generation of European leaders,” Merkel “will not be a lonely figure any longer.”

Macron and Trump

In terms of what Macron’s election will mean for France’s relationship with the United States, Fried said that “the Macron-led government represents an interesting challenge for the Trump administration.”  

Macron has “changed the landscape in which Trump’s foreign policy will operate,” he added.

While Trump has called Macron to congratulate him on his victory, prior to the election he tweeted in support of Le Pen.

According to Fried, Macron represents a counterpoint to Trump, intellectually, politically, and ideologically. However, he claimed the two leaders could find common ground in the fight against terrorism; an allied role in Syria; and, as Trump moves away from his initial skepticism of NATO, the security alliance could be another point of parity between the two leaders.

Most of all, “Russia is at the center” of the two countries’ shared foreign policy concerns, said Mandeville. After Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections, and its suspected involvement in the cyberattack on Macron’s campaign days before the election, “the question of Russia will be very high on the agenda.”

Macron will prove an essential ally for Merkel as she works to maintain EU sanctions on Russia, said Fried. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has claimed that the United States will maintain its sanctions on Russia as well, until Crimea, a territory illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014, is returned to Ukraine.

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: Alina Polyakova, Laure Mandeville, and Damon Wilson

Image: Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! made it to the second round of the French presidential elections on April 23. Macron, pictured here at the Parc des Expositions hall in Paris, will face the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the May 7 runoff. (Reuters/Benoit Tessier)