After one of the most contentious elections in modern French history, Emmanuel Macron is the new President of France — and he has a whole lot to worry about.
Europe and the United States now face the prospect of a young and untested leader with some strong ideas but little political muscle to carry them out.
Above all, Macron must take on what his foe, leader of the far-right Marine Le Pen, has identified as “the survival of France.”
Despite his historic win, Macron has failed to achieve the more important goal of keeping Le Pen below the 30% level that now leaves her as the principal leader of the French opposition.
This presidential campaign has further marginalized the mainstream French parties that have controlled France since the dawn of the Fifth Republic a half century ago. Socialists and Republicans were left entirely out of the balloting in Sunday’s second round for the first time in modern French history.
Then there is the question of Macron’s relations with France’s adversaries and friends. He succeeded in defeating the woman with the closest relationships with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, both of whom are capable of pulling some important economic and strategic strings that are keys to France’s future prosperity and security.
And the Macron campaign charged Vladimir Putin with being responsible for a last-minute hack of his campaign computer systems.
A host of commentators and politicians question whether Macron has the chops to stare down Putin and Trump. His supporters point out that he served as minister of finance under France’s outgoing President Francois Hollande — a credential that can cut both ways with the country’s persistent high unemployment and sluggish development.
Most alarmingly for those celebrating his victory, he has come to power with an electoral mandate that represents considerably less of the eligible voters in the French electorate than he would like. In this respect, he is not unlike Donald Trump, a minority President voted into office only by the peculiarity of the Electoral College. Macron’s minority is due to a much deeper and more profound malaise that has gripped France for years — its people are seeking something, anything new, and most are dissatisfied with the choices presented to them.
And there are yet more differences between Macron and virtually every other President or Emperor France has ever known. First, he has no real political backing or party. He bolted from the Socialist government of Francois Mitterrand and founded his own “movement” a little more than a year ago, then stuck his finger in the eyes of the leaders of every other established party.
Moreover, the French have now elected a President without the kind of overwhelming mandate that Jacques Chirac managed against Le Pen’s father 15 years ago, when Chirac surged to an 82-18% victory, making next month’s legislative elections even more important for the stability and direction of France and Europe itself. Many hoped these issues would be resolved, definitively, this weekend.
Macron’s pro-Frexit and anti-Euro opponent is projected to take a landmark 34% of the vote — the highest ever scored by a National Front candidate. In fact, Le Pen’s share of the vote could rise as more “blank” votes — empty envelopes that should contain the name of one of the two candidates — are expected to be tabulated over the next 48 hours.
Will Macron, a confirmed Eurocentric technocrat, still feel compelled to present the French with a referendum on continued membership in the EU or the common currency? He’s already promised to negotiate “reforms” with other members of the EU who are ill disposed to any substantial changes.
More immediately, next month the French go back to the polls yet again, this time to vote for members of the legislative assembly. It’s here that Le Pen could truly cement herself as the leader of a strong and vocal opposition with real political influence.
Or other mainstream parties could rise again.
In either case, Macron himself could wind up cloistered in his Elysees palace, trying desperately to run a France where he has no real political clout. Sound familiar?
As former Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told USA Today, “These populists are changing the character of the politics just by being there, so even mainstream candidates are having to respond to their agenda.”
This may be the one real meaning of this election for Americans and Europeans struggling desperately to cope with the “new populism.” At their one and only televised debate Wednesday night, Le Pen summed up her appeal, which Macron, who comes from a family and education of some privilege, could never match. “I am the French people who rise early and work late,” she said, in her deep, rolling tones. “I am for France and its civilization. After this election, we are all free strong and independent, and will again be a great nation.” Essentials are in play, she was saying. Do not turn this France over to people who have mutilated and impoverished the France we love.
“The survival of France is at stake,” she concluded. “I count on you.”
Clearly she could not count on enough of them to become their President. Hopefully, Trump’s America and Europe can find a way to live amicably with the result.