By Dan Steinbock
At the eve of the 1st round of the French elections, a gunman opened fire on the Champs-Élysées, the leader of the Front National Marine Le Pen and the centrist Emmanuel Macron garnered about 23-25% in the polls. The two were followed by the center-right François Fillon (19%), whose ratings have been penalised by a funding scandal, and the radical left Jean-Luc Mélenchon (19%). Since no candidate garnered an absolute majority in the first round, the second round is critical.
Public facades versus financial interests
Emmanuel Macron’s (40) stint in President Hollande’s socialist government as a business-friendly economy minister alienated most socialists while failing to win over most conservatives. But the business and conservatives can tolerate him as a unifying figure; media will portray him as a “centrist”, and Washington wants him in Elysee Palace. But in reality, he does not represent “center-right.”
Macron advocates a Clintonesque, Blairian “Third Way.” Yet, his platform movement En Marche! is a one-man’s façade, which is guided by Institut Montaigne’s corporate giants, including commercial real estate titan Unibail-Rodamco, banking behemoth BNP Paribas, and aerospace mammoth Safran. En Marche! is funded mainly by conservative interests.
Macron is the ultimate Europhile and federalist. He supports integration and structural reforms. In controversies about immigration, secularism, security and terrorism, he favours balancing acts.
In the past decade, Marine Le Pen (49) has “mainstreamed” FN away from the extremism. She supports traditional values, law and order while opposing immigration and the EU. She wants to leave the Euro and a return to the French franc. Despite her increasing middle-class and blue-collar support, she is typically portrayed as “far-right.” That does characterise her anti-immigration stance, but not her economic, social and foreign policies.
In the second-round of the presidential election, Macron has an overwhelming lead against Le Pen, even if the great number of undecided among the electorate suggests that last-minute upset is theoretically possible.
The new Élysee Palace
The real story of the French election is not whether the winner is Macron, but that Marine Le Pen has re-defined the winning agenda.
Domestically, the new president will struggle to push for (diluted) structural reforms with or without the consent of the unions. It will have a stricter view of immigration and a tougher stance against Islamic fundamentalism.
From center-right to center-left, France will also be more critical toward EU integration, and the euro. In Brussels, Macron is seen as a potential saviour of France and the EU.
Le Pen believes in classic Gaullism, which stresses national sovereignty and unity, and Europe as autonomous from the superpowers, particularly the United States.
In foreign policy, the new president will be more cooperative with Russia and President Putin, from the Middle East to Ukraine and energy issues. While France may invest more in defence spending, Gaullism is predicated on greater scepticism toward the NATO and French national priorities.
Unlike Le Pen who wants more independence, or Fillon who believes in realpolitik, or anti-NATO Mélenchon, Macron is Washington’s favourite. Indeed, recent Wikileaks disclosures show that US intelligence agencies have engaged in spying campaigns in French elections since the early 2010s. In the past, they supported Sarkozy’s “democratic victory”; now they want Macron in the Élysee Palace.
That’s why, in the coming weeks, French conservative interests will rally behind Macron, while Le Pen will be portrayed as “too risky” and “too dangerous” for “France and Europe.”
Last summer, Hollande’s socialist government was pitted against unions and the progressives, which fostered apprehension and fragmentation in the left. France cannot avoid the overhaul of its labour legislation in the future, but a socialist president cannot drive a neoliberal labour agenda. That’s the lesson of Hollande’s fall.
After half a decade of near-stagnation, the French economy has benefited from a cyclical rebound, due to a more accommodating external environment, a depreciated euro, record low-interest rates and the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing. Nevertheless, these shifts cannot compensate for France’s historical rigidities, which overshadow the economy’s medium-term potential.
If the French choose Macron in the second round, he is likely to share the fate of his heroes, Tony Blair and the Clintons; initial excitement followed by disillusion and resentment. If on the other hand, the French will opt for a last-minute upset, multi-speed Europe – the idea that different parts of the European Union should integrate at different levels and pace – will accelerate.
If the world’s sixth largest economy begins to shake, Italy cannot avoid a quake, ailing Eastern Europe could take multiple hits and repercussions would be global.
Dr Dan Steinbock is the founder of DifferenceGroup. He has served as Research Director of International Business at India China and America Institute (USA) and Visiting Fellow at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). For more, see www.differencegroup.net
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