France Avoids the Worst

AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

Ballots are counted by volunteers for the first-round presidential election at a polling station in Paris, Sunday, April 23, 2017. 

Up to the final minute, the world watched in suspense. Would French voters stun everyone, as British and American voters did in 2016? In the final weeks the polls had tightened to the point where no one could say what the outcome would be. But in the end the pollsters proved to be spot on: Emmanuel Macron came in first, with 23.7 percent of the vote, and Marine Le Pen second with 21.9. This result makes a Macron victory in the second round almost certain: no poll has put Le Pen within 20 points of him in a head-to-head contest.

The next president of France will therefore be, without a doubt, a 39-year-old centrist technocrat who staunchly supports the European Union. Yet this was supposed to be the year of populist revolt, rejection of globalization, and disdain for external constraints on national economic policymaking. What happened?

Put simply, the French looked into the abyss and recoiled. They heard promises from both the far left and far right to lead them out of the European Union and decided they did not want to go. They heard the candidate of the Socialist Party defend the environment by advocating slow or no growth and promising to compensate those left without jobs by offering them a basic income too small to make ends meet. They heard Marine Le Pen promise ethnic cleansing and chose instead, despite a terrorist incident on the eve of the election, to face the challenge of building a multicultural society with a Gallic accent. And they rejected the shrill voices that claimed that the only way to preserve their identity was to pull up the drawbridges and isolate themselves in a hilltop fortress.

In two weeks Emmanuel Macron will be elected president. At that point his difficulties will begin. He has promised a series of supply-side reforms that will continue the timid steps toward a less-regulated economy initiated by his predecessor François Hollande with Macron’s assistance. These reforms provoked considerable opposition, and Macron will face similar if not stronger resistance. What hope is there, then, for success?

Macron has three advantages over Hollande. First, he did not pretend to be anything but what he is: a reformist social-liberal technocrat. Unlike Hollande, he never suggested that his enemy was “the world of finance.” Finance is the milieu in which he was formed, first as a civil service inspector of finance, then as an investment banker, and finally as Hollande’s minister of the economy. He believes that growth requires investment and that investors must be cajoled and wooed.

Second, he is not saddled with the baggage of 30 years of maneuvering among party factions and a hundred past compromises. Despite his frequent vagueness, he comes across as forceful rather than soft and vacillating. And although his career has been pushed forward on numerous occasions by approving older heads, he projects a Kennedyesque aura of energy and youth.

Finally, and most importantly, he has the knack of reassuring the Germans, who in my estimation have recognized that some modification in their approach to strict budgetary discipline is in order if the European Union is to be preserved, as they hope it will be because they have profited from it so handsomely. Regardless of whether Merkel or Schulz is the next German chancellor, the Germans will have found in Macron someone they can work with, and that is long overdue good news for Europe.

But what of domestic opposition? For Marine Le Pen, the coming final round will mark the decisive battle between patriots and globalizers, between heartless Eurocrats and true-blooded Frenchman. Meanwhile, scowling Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT trade union that led the opposition against a labor code reform in which Macron had a hand as economy minister, is no doubt girding his loins for future combat. But Martinez’s position has weakened since the anti-reform marches, as his group lost ground in recent union elections. The rival CFDT, which is much more amenable to working cooperatively with Macron, surpassed Martinez’s organization to become the largest union in France.

Macron, who will be elected with a strong mandate, will therefore move quickly to outflank Martinez and push through new measures, likely with sweeteners in the form of transitional training to help workers laid off in declining sectors to find work in the new tech economy that Macron sees as France’s best hope for capitalizing on its comparative advantages.

Still, the outlook for Macron is not all rosy. Adding Le Pen’s 21 percent to Mélenchon’s 19, you have 40 percent of the French radically opposed to “the system” of which Macron is both a product and a symbol. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, neither “mainstream” party (the Republicans and the Socialists) will have a candidate in the final round. Legislative elections, to be held in June, will determine the makeup of the National Assembly with which Macron must govern. Under the French constitution, the president appoints the prime minister, who must then win the confidence of the deputies in order to govern. This will be a tricky passage for Macron, who is backed only by his movement En Marche!, which he organized as a presidential vehicle, and by politicians of both the Republican and Socialist parties who jumped ship to endorse the young upstart.

Macron will have to bargain with the major parties for support and possibly choose his prime minister from one of them (although he may also turn to an outsider, perhaps from the private sector). In any event his coalition will be fragile. I suspect, however, that he will move boldly ahead with his vision for a more flexible, more open, and more compassionate (though not necessarily more equal) France and let the chips fall where they may. He will read his mandate as an endorsement of his view that Hollande’s problem was not that he went too far but that the did not go far enough and did not explain where he wanted to go. Macron, who bears a certain resemblance to the young Frank Sinatra, will do things his way. Whether France will reward him for that in the end, only time will tell.

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