It’s always risky to put pen to paper before all the votes are counted, but here goes… Maybe in the morning this will all belong to a parallel universe.
So Emmanuel Macron, great hope of pro-European centrists everywhere, has marched into the second round of France’s presidential election and in two weeks time most pundits expect him to win the gilded keys to the Elysee. A reasonable expectation in light of the twenty point gap in hypothetical run-off polls against his rival Marine Le Pen. Pollsters have received a lot of flack in recent times, but the Democratic Michigan primary aside, none of the major failures of the last few years – the 2015 UK general election or the 2016 US election came close to a double digit error.
Many on the left have compared Macron and his En Marche movement to Barack Obama’s rise on a new voter coalition in 2008. The youngest President in French history and the first from neither of the two main parties in the modern era, having won on the back of a movement created in a few months and centred around his populist centric rhetoric. A remarkable achievement if he pulls it off.
Less discussed is the fact that in many respects Macron represents a continuation of the fifth republic’s governing elite. A former investment banker and socialist economy minister under Francois Hollande and a believer in almost all the main orthodoxies of French domestic and foreign policy, some of his critics have labelled him a modern seventies-style technocrat who makes populist speeches.
His programme is certainly far from radical. There are the usual Christmas tree of spending and hand-out promises, such as giving every 18 year old a 500 euro culture pass to spend on cinema, theatre and concert tickets. He is praised for being bold on proposed mergers of the self-employed and employee unemployment benefits systems and public and private sector pensions. He also, unusually for a candidate of the left, wants to cut corporation tax by 8 percent to 25 percent. On unemployment his aims are a modest reduction of 3 percent over five years from France’s current 10 percent rate.
How achievable this platform is remains to be seen, firstly in France’s National Assembly elections in June, where it is currently far from clear who, if anyone, will have a majority. Macron has promised to field En Marche! candidates in the election, but whether they can replicate his success en masse seems unlikely. France’s Socialist Party, current holders of power, received a devastatingly low share of the vote in the Presidential election first round and are unlikely to rebound quickly. The Republicans may hope to separate themselves from Fillon’s scandal and build a campaign for a majority around containing Macron’s more socialist leanings. All of which is to say, if Barack Obama found it hard to reform America with only a congressional majority in his first two years in power, Macron will find it even harder to implement his vision for France with no majority in the National Assembly. Politics may be paralysed for the next five years.
Yet he inherits a country in much need of reform and clearly unhappy with the status quo. The French economy has been the sick man of Northern Europe for a long time now, unemployment remains stubbornly high and growth dispiritingly low. Early indications from exit polls and counting are that Eurosceptic candidates polled over 50% of the vote in the first round of the Presidential election. Marine Le Pen stands poised to get 35%, maybe over 40% of the vote in the run-off. Macron’s first round win (still unconfirmed at the time of writing) was with less than a quarter of the vote and for many voters he is merely the default anti-Le Pen choice in the second round. This is not exactly an encouraging situation for even the most optimistic Macron supporters.
Some of Macron’s proposals could undoubtedly help the French economy and encourage foreign investment, if he can pass them against powerful vested interests that soon decimated Nicolas Sarkozy’s much more radical reform plans. Sarkozy’s blinked at almost the first fight he faced, maybe Macron will be different, but the odds have to be against him with no power base in the National Assembly. His platform also includes a series of political reform measures, such as term limits, reduction in politician numbers and bans on family members and paid lobbying work. All undoubtedly designed to reduce public dissatisfaction with the political class, even if they pass, a change in popular attitudes seems doubtful at best. Le Pen and her divisive politics are unlikely to go anywhere either, nor French unhappiness with the EU, whatever Macron’s enthusiasm for it.
So the fifth republic stumbles on, after its least successful President Francois Hollande, Macron can only be an improvement, but the question that has haunted the last few decades in France remains unanswered. Can France be reformed? Does she (or more pointedly her political class) even want reform? Or will real change only be possible in a sixth republic?