French voters elected centrist independent Emmanuel Macron as president on Sunday. A 39-year-old former investment banker, Macron will become the country’s youngest leader ever.
Although Macron defeated far-right populist Marine Le Pen, who leads the National Front party, by a whopping 33 points, France remains a deeply divided country. Anxieties persist over immigration, terrorism, globalization, and chronic unemployment.
And there is widespread disillusionment with the political establishment on both the left and the right. France’s two major political parties, the Republicans and the Socialists, are in tatters. The Republican candidate, François Fillon, earned just under 20 percent of the vote in the first round, tying far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, was a complete disaster, earning last place in the first round with 6.2 percent of the vote.
Macron, who formed a new political party called En Marche in 2016, has promised to strengthen France’s ties to Europe, simplify the tax system, overhaul the labor market, and scale back needless regulations. But without a clear governing coalition, he will face a number of obstacles. If he’s unable to lift France out of its economic malaise, all those festering anxieties will come bubbling up five years from now when the next presidential election is held.
To understand how France’s political parties will respond to the outcome of this election, I reached out to Arthur Goldhammer, a Harvard professor who is a longtime commentator on French politics, writing about it regularly for the American Prospect, Democracy Journal, the Nation, and Foreign Policy.
I ask him what Macron’s surprisingly large victory means for France’s future, what becomes of the French left now that the Socialist Party has collapsed, and if he believes the far right is primed to succeed five years from now in the next presidential election.
Here’s what he told me.
Macron’s election is unprecedented.
It's probably too early to say how big a deal it is. It’s certainly unprecedented that someone who comes out of no party at all becomes president of France. Nothing like this has happened before. The closest analogy would be [Valéry] Giscard d'Estaing's election in 1974, and that was a fluke because there was a split in the Gaullist Party and one faction supported Giscard, who came out of a centrist party. But it was already a party, and Giscard had considerable experience.
But this is a novelty; nothing like it has ever happened. At the same time, both major parties are in disarray in the wake of this election, so that's probably the biggest thing to note about the change in the political landscape. Their candidates were eliminated in the first round, and that leaves them scrambling to try to come up with a strategy to make up for lost ground in the legislative elections.
Macron’s ability to govern depends on how the parties align.
I think what Macron is hoping for is some kind of realignment in the center so that he will govern with a grand coalition such as the one that exists in Germany, where elements of the right wing of the Socialist Party and the left wing of the Republican Party come together. So something like the Valls [France’s former Socialist prime minister and an early ally of Macron’s] faction and the Hollande [the outgoing French president] factions of the Socialist Party and the Juppe [an influential center-right figure in France’s Republican Party] faction of the Republicans.
Le Pen is flawed, and the National Front could splinter after her defeat. I think Marine Le Pen scared away some voters who had been willing to contemplate voting for her in the way she behaved in the last two weeks. She had made some progress in redefining the party, softening its image, and purging anti-Semitic and Neo-Nazi elements that her father had tolerated or actively encouraged in the party, and that had expanded her base.
But in the last couple of weeks, and particularly in the debate between the two rounds [of the election], she reverted to form. She shouted and yelled and refused to allow any actual in-depth discussion of issues, and I think that turned some prospective voters against her.
So there's a prospect of a split in the National Front, although it's probably too early for that to emerge. Marine Le Pen is contested internally by a group led by her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who's a leader in the South. Marion is still quite young, and this is probably not the opportune moment, but there's already been criticism from within the party of people around Marine Le Pen, like Florian Philippot, who became her No. 1 spokesman, and who had helped her in trying to modernize the image of the party and turn more toward economic issues and away from the racial hatred.
The future of the far right in France is uncertain.
There are a number of possibilities. One is that it will hang together and try to seek alliances with the other parties. Marine La Pen indicated on Sunday that that would be her strategy. She's going to rename the party and seek alliances. And she made a step toward that between the two rounds when she made an alliance with [Nicolas] Dupont-Aignan, one of the minor candidates for the presidency, and she had said she would make him prime minister if she were elected. So I think she's going to expand that effort. And that was the first time the National Front had made an alliance with someone who was not in the party.
So she might try to go in that direction. The right wing of the Republicans might begin to contemplate alliances of this sort, particularly in districts where the National Front is quite strong. But I think it's probably early for that and it may not be a paying strategy, so I'm not sure that will happen at all. But there is a leadership struggle, or there will be a leadership struggle in the Republican Party.
The National Front could win the next presidential election, but the populace is just as likely to turn more to the left if Macron fails.
The National Front has been moving steadily upward for years, and so it could certainly win in five years. This scenario was widely predicted before the election, that if Macron fails, this is the last straw. Things may have changed a bit since Marine La Pen did less well than expected and may start people thinking anew. And five years ago, I don't think anyone would have predicted that Marine La Pen would have made as much progress as she did. So five years is a long time.
We don't know what will happen or what the mode of failure will be if Macron fails. Who knows, it could empower the far left. Mélenchon [the far-left candidate who quit the Socialist Party in 2008] did better than expected in the first round, so people might turn in that direction. If you were to ask me today, I would say that's the most probable direction in which things would turn if Macron became as unpopular as Hollande.
The left in France is badly fractured.
Well, the mainstream left is in shambles. Hamon’s candidacy [Hamon is current President Hollande’s center-left successor in the Socialist Party] was a disaster. There was an enormous amount of internal bickering in the party; quite a number of leaders bolted and endorsed Macron, including Valls, the former prime minister, and John-Yves Le Drian, the defense minister. Le Drian is being widely talked about as a possible prime minister under Macron, and if that happens, I think there's gonna be an all-out battle for redefining the Socialist Party, or it may fall apart into factions that will try to rebuild from the ground up. It's just impossible to say until we see how the legislative elections go.
Macron faces a divided country and a complicated political landscape.
It's still a deeply divided country, and Macron's vote is by no means an endorsement of Macron's program. Estimates are that as many as 40 or 45 percent of the people who voted for him voted to block Le Pen and not for Macron positively. And he's probably going to alienate quite a number of those people because he said that his first move will be to reform the labor code, which even the mild reforms attempted under Hollande elicited quite a strong reaction and there were demonstrations in the streets, lots of union protests. So the divisiveness is going to come to the fore immediately, and we'll see how he responds to that.
If there's going to be any movement on loosening austerity and stimulating the economy, it has to come from Germany; it can't come from France. So I think Germany being reassured might well put more capital into the European Investment Bank, and that could be good news for Macron. But it's good news that will probably work a little too slowly for Macron's timetable. That kind of investment takes a while to produce results, and a lot of it will go to countries other than France.
So whether France will see a major reduction in unemployment over the next year as a result of more German flexibility, I think that's very doubtful. There have been a few signs of tentative recovery in France. Unemployment has come down a few points over the last few months, so that's good news, but still it's not going to be dramatic as far as we can tell now. And Macron has to hope that people remain optimistic and energized by his victory long enough for him to get something going that will show some positive results.