By: Matthew Brewer
Emmanuel Macron will be the next President of France. Lovers of Western liberalism and the European Project can take a moment to savor a temporary respite from the panic which has gripped their community since the UK’s vote to leave the European Union a year ago.
Despite Mr. Macron’s crushing victory over Marine Le Pen by a margin of almost two-to-one, the most challenging work for the European Project lies ahead. No small amount of that burden rests with Mr. Macron. The office he has inherited is quite possibly the most powerful in the Western world, and French leadership, badly depleted by the current resident of the Palace Élysée, is crucial to the survival of Europe. Immense authority has been placed into the hands of a political neophyte who must now grapple with both the breadth of his powers and the potential pitfalls of its misuse.
For those familiar with the American Presidency, the French Presidency is a vastly different animal. It was dramatically strengthened by the late Charles De Gaulle upon the founding of the French Fifth Republic and further expanded in 2002, resulting in a so-called “Hyper-presidential” system. The national executive wields immense power and unilateral authority in the realms of foreign policy and national security. They can name the Prime Minister, dissolve the National Assembly (France’s “Congress”), and deploy nuclear weapons, among other, more mundane duties.
Additionally, the President cannot, under any circumstance short of a coup d’etat, be removed from office. This may provide a partial explanation for current French President Francois Hollande retaining his office despite approval ratings lower than gonorrhea, colonoscopies, or the United States’ Congress. However, there is one limit to the French President’s powers, in that, while able to name any Prime Minister they so choose, only the National Assembly has the authority to dismiss the Prime Minister, meaning that some level of collaboration between the President and the National Assembly is necessary for a functioning government.
Herein lies Mr. Macron’s first great challenge: ensuring that the National Assembly is suitably amenable to his sweeping notions of reform. Mr. Macron rode to victory at the head of a party he established from nothing, the center-left Association for the Renewal of Political Life, more commonly known by the appellation En Marche!. (The exclamation point is official.) From its foundation less than a year ago, En Marche(!) is now poised to win an astonishing 249 to 286 seats, where 289 represents an absolute majority of the National Assembly’s 577 members. However, En Marche(!) is unlikely to have a strong, natural ally in any coalition government, as the Socialists, France’s establishment left-wing party, stand to win a paltry 28 to 43 seats. The Conservative Party looks likely to top 200 seats. For an upstart party, En Marche(!) is likely to struggle in any situation short of an absolute majority.
The importance of securing a governing coalition makes the stakes of France’s legislative elections massive, not just for Mr. Macron, but for all of Europe. The example of former President Francois Mitterrand is illustrative. Elected in 1981 as the first-ever Socialist President of France, with a Socialist absolute majority in the National Assembly, President Mitterrand promised massive reform and set about delivering almost immediately. Throughout 1981 and 1982, companies were nationalized, the minimum wage was increased, and France passed many of the beloved social welfare programs pundits in the United States love to ridicule. However, in the face of intractable economic decline precipitated by the 1973 oil crisis and a persistent recession which peaked in 1983, President Mitterrand reversed many of his Socialist policies. The abandonment of Dirigisme, as the policies were known, was rewarded with the loss of the Socialist majority in the National Assembly in 1986, beginning a painful period of “cohabitation” with the Conservative Prime Minister and future president, Jacque Chirac. Under the Mitterrand-Chirac government, Dirigisme was not merely abandoned, but almost completely undone, and President Mitterrand was transformed into a de facto Conservative president. This reversal fundamentally ceded the ideological battlefield to the French Right, leading to a Conservative monopoly on policy-making under the presidencies of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. The lack of a credible alternative paved the way for the politics of austerity which precipitated France’s current European crisis of confidence, while the total incompetence of President Hollande served only to further reinforce the poverty of ideas on the French Left. If Mr. Macron cannot deliver on his calls for sweeping reform, which the French electorate demands, history could repeat itself in truly catastrophic fashion, making Ms. Le Pen’s defeat only temporary.
Mr. Macron will also face challenges to the broader European order under his tenure, with Brexit negotiations already turning caustic and Brussels contemplating a “reboot” amidst persistent unpopularity and distrust from all corners of the EU. Add to this the flagrant election meddling of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has already taken aim at Mr. Macron and set his sights on the German elections, and Mr. Macron may have cause for real concern about the durability of the European Project. If Mr. Macron is to overcome these challenges, he will need to develop a strong relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and restore the France-Germany partnership upon which the European Union was founded.
For the French election to prove anything but a brief respite from creeping far-right extremism, Mr. Macron will need to forge a legislative coalition within France, establish a strong partnership with other pro-EU leaders without, and above all deliver on the calls for fundamental reform which elevated him. Otherwise, the far-right may complete the black swan hat trick they so desperately wanted with Ms. Le Pen. Given Ms. Le Pen’s considerable support, as well as the millions who simply sat on the sidelines, no amount of electoral triumph can guarantee that Mr. Macron will have a mandate to govern when he arrives at the Palace Élysée. Only results will suffice.
Matthew Brewer holds a Master’s Degree in European Studies and International Economics from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a degree in German Studies from Oberlin College. He is currently Director of Global Policy Development at Sorini, Samet & Associates where he covers issues including global political developments, trade, and tax policy.
Photo by Lorie Shaull