President Macron: Finally, Some Good News for the EU

Emmanuel Macron’s  large victory is historic by many standards. The newly-elected president of France won the election on his first attempt (like Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1974 and François Hollande in 2012) but, unlike any other French president since 1958, he did so without any longstanding political experience or the backing of a mainstream party; he achieved this feat at the age of thirty-nine, which makes him France’s youngest president.

More importantly, however, Macron has been elected on a clear pro-European platform. Europe was a central theme of this presidential election and Macron was the only truly “Europhile” candidate in a group of eleven candidates. His pro-European Union (EU) stance was magnified in the May 7 runoff against Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front candidate who had campaigned aggressively in favor of France leaving the Eurozone.

While promising to improve the democratic functioning of the EU, and the Eurozone, Macron made clear that France’s future is absolutely European and conditioned by a revived French-German strategic partnership. In one example of many, Macron praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during his campaign, for her courageous political decisions on the migrant crisis facing Europe. In doing so, Macron set himself apart from many leading French politicians, including former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in whose government he served as economy minister. A unified and rebalanced Franco-German relationship will be instrumental in ending the long-running governance crisis facing the EU.

Will it be enough to relaunch the European construction and reposition the EU as a source of stability and leadership in an uncertain global environment, including in Europe’s eastern and southern neighborhoods?

France will have to restore its economic and social credibility in order to meet this objective of repositioning the EU. This is probably where Macron’s presidency, if successful, could reveal its most compelling dimension. In his young political career, Macron has developed a clear pro-business approach, convinced that France can regain its role with the EU and more globally if, and only if, it improves its competitiveness. 

While acknowledging them, Macron has not dwelled on France’s well-known economic weaknesses, such as a highly inefficient labor market and a ballooning public debt. Instead, he has placed an emphasis on how France, and the French, can win in a globalized economy increasingly marked by technological disruption.

As economy minister, Macron created a strong connection with the French tech community, one of the strongest globally, and drew great benefit from this image throughout the presidential campaign. His approach to many other challenges, while also fueled by other dimensions, is also rooted in this economic ambition and a firmly expressed belief in France’s creativity across all socioeconomic sectors. Macron sees, for example, the low-carbon transition as an opportunity for France whose industry is among the leaders in the field of resilient infrastructure, low-carbon energy, and electromobility.

Macron’s principal risk, first as a candidate and now as president, is that of being perceived as the champion of the slim segment of the French population that has drawn tangible benefit from globalization. His extremely high levels of support among French expatriates across the globe could be cited as evidence. This stands in sharp contrast with the popularity of Le Pen who drew support from lower-income voters and young people facing challenging rates of national unemployment. Macron’s willingness to reshape the French social ladder into a more inclusive and open system has not fully convinced these segments of the population and will certainly be one of the most critical issues in the coming years. His large victory against Le Pen has shown that this bet can be won.

However, Macron’s embrace of inclusive globalization and his positive economic outlook, more generally, have been welcomed in the suburbs of the metropoles, the banlieues where France has concentrated immigrants and their families for decades. Many thought leaders from these historically underserved areas have embraced Macron’s idea that entrepreneurship as well as enhanced education policies could constitute a route to social and economic emancipation as well as contribute to France’s long-term economic success. It will be useful to collect more data after the elections to confirm this support. This could, over the medium term, be one of the keys to Macron’s success.

Within the context of a French society that was shocked to discover that hundreds of its young citizens had joined the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the capacity to leverage this energy from the banlieues will be a key element of France’s long-term future.

The newly elected president will face legislative elections just thirty days after taking office, and the coming weeks will determine whether Macron will be able to form a parliamentary majority. While he will most certainly draw momentum from the impetus of his recent election, as has historically been the case, support from other parties may be necessary even if not secured on a coalition basis. En Marche!, Macron’s party, is just over a year old and the path to a parliamentary majority may prove complex for the new president even if  En Marche! builds on Macron’s second-round score. Over the next five years, Macron may have to govern on a project basis and seek bipartisan/multi-partisan agreement, backed by civil society, on most critical topics. This approach may be perceived as presenting a risk of government paralysis, but the German coalition example of the last twelve years could prove, hopefully, inspiring for France.    

Julien Touati, a 2016 Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow, is a partner at Meridiam, a global investor in infrastructure. He began his career at the French Treasury.

Image: French President-elect Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Trogneux, celebrated at his victory rally near the Louvre in Paris on May 7. (Reuters/Christian Hartmann)