By Richard Maher
Emmanuel Macron, the centrist independent running for the French presidency, has soundly defeated Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front to become the country’s next president.
Macron’s decisive victory in this pivotal election for France and the European Union showed that the so-called French ‘Republican front’ still holds. Millions of voters from the center-left and center-right, who supported other candidates in the first round of presidential voting two weeks ago, rallied around Macron in the run-off, preventing the extreme right from gaining power in France for the first time since the 1940s.
The election caps Macron’s meteoric and improbable rise in French politics. He was still relatively unknown when President François Hollande selected him to serve as economy minister three years ago. And when he announced his bid for the presidency last year, few experts gave him much of a chance.
Though Macron has an impressive pedigree, he has never held elective office. And he ran as a self-proclaimed outsider, unaffiliated with any of France’s mainstream parties.
Now, at just 39 years old, Macron will become the youngest French head of state since Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873), president of France’s Second Republic from 1848 to 1851.
Macron captured 65% of the vote, performing most strongly in France’s big cities — Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse and Nantes.
Macron was considered the favorite coming into the run-off, but some experts warned that low voter turnout could lead to a much closer race than many were predicting. After last Wednesday’s television debate between the two finalists, in which Le Pen was widely judged to have performed poorly, the French polling firm Ipsos reported that Macron’s lead over her had widened to 26 points, 63% to 37%.
Macron’s resounding victory also showed that last Friday’s leak of campaign documents and emails had little effect on the election’s outcome. Just before the ban on campaigning went into effect on Friday at midnight, the Macron campaign announced that it was the victim of a ‘massive, coordinated’ hacking attack.
According to a statement released by the campaign, the hack was “an attempt to destabilize the French presidential election” by sowing doubt and misinformation.
There is no firm evidence yet, but French officials suspect that the hackers have ties to Russian intelligence, and are the same group that was behind last year’s attack on the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems in the United States.
Macron’s fate depends on the National Assembly
Macron must now unite the country after one of the most divisive and polarizing elections in recent French history. In his speech to supporters, he said that he understood the anxiety and the doubts that many Le Pen supporters expressed.
He must now also deliver on his reform agenda. But whether he will be able to do so depends on the outcome of the elections to the National Assembly, France’s lower and more powerful legislative chamber, which will take place in June.
Macron’s outsider status could be a liability there. Parliamentary elections in France have traditionally been dominated by center-left and center-right parties.
Because Macron launched his En Marche! movement just a year ago, the party currently holds no legislative seats. It is running candidates across the country, but many of them are young and inexperienced, and it remains unlikely that the party will capture the 289 seats needed for a parliamentary majority.
In France, the prime minister as head of government must reflect a parliamentary majority, meaning that she or he may come from a different party than the president. The French call this “cohabitation” and it has happened only three times since 1958.
Such a scenario would make it harder for Macron to propose and implement his reforms. President Hollande had a majority in parliament, but even so was unable to push through his agenda, and his approval rating sunk to record lows.
For now, polls are placing Macron’s movement as the front runner in June’s legislative elections. En Marche! is forecast to capture between 249 and 286 seats, centrist and conservative parties are projected to win between 200 and 212 seats, the Socialists 28 to 43 and Le Pen’s National Front 15 to 25.
Greater significance of the French election
Macron’s win is a clear victory for the European Union. Le Pen had vowed to leave the Eurozone, exit Europe’s Schengen border-free travel area, and hold a referendum on France’s EU membership. Macron is a firm believer in the European project of economic and political integration, and has said repeatedly that France is stronger in a united Europe.
But while Europe may have dodged a bullet with Macron’s victory, anti-establishment populism still poses a serious threat to the EU; this was the National Front’s best showing yet in a presidential contest.
When Marine Le Pen’s father was trounced in the run-off against Jacques Chirac 15 years ago, he managed only 18% of the vote. Le Pen fille nearly doubled that total on May 7.
If Macron is unable to deliver on his political agenda — in particular, giving a boost to France’s anemic economic growth and bringing down unemployment – voters may turn to candidates of the extreme right or the extreme left in the next presidential election. After all, in the first round of this year’s election, such candidates captured nearly 50% of the vote.
The election has exposed a deeply divided and polarized France. Macron’s win showed a country that is internationalist, outward looking, pro-EU and free market-oriented; Le Pen’s rise revealed one that is nationalist, protectionist, anti-EU and suspicious of outsiders.
These same fault lines can be seen across Western democracies today. Last year, they propelled Donald Trump to victory in the US presidential election, and compelled British voters to choose to leave the EU.
Macron’s mandate is uncertain. Many people voted for him in the second round not out of conviction but to ensure Le Pen’s defeat. Despite her attempts to ‘un-demonize’ the National Front, many French people still see it as xenophobic and a threat to democracy.
Macron pulled off an incredible personal and political triumph on Sunday May 7. But now the real work begins – and everyone who believes in a strong and united Europe should hope for his success.
Richard Maher is a Research Fellow, Global Governance Program at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, European University Institute.
Featured image credits: Visual Hunt
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