Progressive Futures

The risks and uncertainty of a Macron presidency

27 April 2017

Emmanuel Macron’s advantage in the first round of the French presidential election heralds a comfortable victory. Although commentators are cautious not to call it a day before the second round on 7 May, the vast majority of them expect the centrist candidate to beat Marine Le Pen by a 10 to 30 point margin. Macron has been endorsed by the entire centre-right and centre-left political class. If this outcome is confirmed, for the next five years France will have a young, liberal, pro-EU president.

Renaud Thillaye

Following Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in Austria, and considering Angela Merkel’s popularity in Germany and that of Justin Trudeau in Canada, many pundits are quick to hail another sign that populism can be defeated with an open, forward-looking agenda. Yet, the French have not suddenly become more liberal-minded. Macron does not really owe his success to a long and persuasive campaign for hearts-and-minds. Instead, he very skilfully seized a moment of profound disaffection against the political establishment and stormed the campaign.

Tactical voting led to Macron’s victory

It meant distancing himself from a deeply unpopular President Hollande, who had previously hired him as a senior advisor before appointing him economy minister. Subsequently, Macron was ‘fortunate’ that his centre-right rival, François Fillon, collapsed in the polls in February after fake job allegations against his wife led to a formal judicial inquiry. The disappointment with Fillon on the centre-right, the high score predicted for Marine Le Pen and a rather late and unconvincing Socialist bid by Benoit Hamon led many voters to cast a Macron ballot. The significance of this ‘tactical vote’ is reflected in opinion polls. A few days before the vote, Ipsos found that the main rationale behind the 26% of the French electorate voting for Macron was to prevent another candidate from making it to the second round. Only 43% said they were supporting a candidate they found suitable; this contrasts with 67% of Le Pen voters.

In other words, Macron’s expected victory is a choice of reason, and evidence that Marine Le Pen has managed to impose a restructuring of the French political landscape. Such a polarised country runs a high risk of tension and paralysis if the situation is poorly managed. President Macron would be ill-advised to ignore the powerful signal sent by the 7.9 million French men and women voting for Le Pen (one million more than in 2012) across a vast range of communities, especially in former industrial bastions in the North-East of France, where the Front National finished in first place.

Big tasks ahead

Macron will need to adjust his Europhile rhetoric for a highly sceptical public, and handle the proposed economic and social reforms with the utmost care. As the most unambiguously pro-EU candidate, Macron represents the perfect target for Le Pen, who does not hesitate to stress his links with the EU elite and his support for the status quo. The far-right candidate tirelessly denounces the EU’s unkept promises and the establishment’s incapacity to demonstrate that the euro is good for jobs and living standards.

As a candidate, Macron needs to make clear he understands the French people’s concerns about the EU in order to broaden his following. As a president, he will need to quickly demonstrate that the EU can indeed have a positive social impact. Supporting the revision of the Posting of Workers Directive to combat ‘social dumping’ and his endorsement of the commission’s pillar of social rights might not be enough. Hard choices will have to be made on the future of eurozone governance. Macron recently criticised German export surpluses – an indication he will push Berlin to spend more or adopt a more growth-friendly attitude. Whether he manages to create a eurozone budget, one of his key proposals, will be a major test.

Touching sensitive nerves

On a domestic level, the philosophy of Macron’s project is to take France from a bismarckian, insurance-based welfare system to a more tax-based, universal one inspired by Scandinavian ‘flexicurity’. On paper, such a vision makes a lot of sense in a society polarised between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. However, the envisaged revamps of the pension and unemployment benefits systems risk touching very sensitive nerves. Many blue-collar workers today cling on to the rights that often go with their employment status or their profession. In a context of high unemployment and significant career uncertainty, many of these ‘precarious insiders’ are likely to react negatively to the suggestion that their rights might be affected.

Emmanuel Macron’s expected victory on 7 May could thus prove a pyrrhic victory for liberals, pro-Europeans and reformists if he fails to deliver change rapidly. The cocktail of EU integration initiatives and social reforms the centrist candidate envisages will be a difficult pill to swallow for French people. The political experiment starting in France is a fascinating one to watch, but simultaneously full of risks and uncertainty.

This article was originally published on Clingendael.nl

Image credit: Guillaume Destombes / Shutterstock.com