The odds favor Emmanuel Macron, but his task in reforming France will be incredibly difficult

A consequential toss-up.
A consequential toss-up.
Image: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
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After the first round of the French presidential election, the odds favor Emmanuel Macron. Even in this case, France has profoundly changed, making necessary reforms difficult.

First, the good news: The reasonably best candidate, the one who is the most likely to adopt a reformist stance without wrecking the country has a reasonable chance of becoming the next president on May 7.

Emmanuel Macron, 39, a former economy minister who broke many rules of the French political system is currently the best hope for the country.

He has eliminated two mediocre products of French politics. The first is the ultra-left wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who gets an astonishing 19.6% of the votes, vs. 23.8% for Macron and 21.4% for Marine Le Pen). The former Trotskyist wanted to eliminate those he deems rich (i.e. practically everybody with a decent job in the private sector); he also wanted to uncouple France from the EU in favor of the Bolivarian Alliance (whose members include Venezuela and Cuba, with the support of robust democracies like Russia and Iran).

The second notable elimination was François Fillon, a traditional conservative who liked to see himself as a new Margaret Thatcher. That was a poor mental construct: as prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy for five years, he did nothing to significantly modernize the country. To rejuvenate his candidacy, he tried to stretch his rhetoric toward the far right end, bringing on board the most rancid parts of the country: Roman Catholic hardliners, anti-immigration voters, resentful tax expatriates, and a cohort leaning to Marine Le Pen but concerned about the devastation that could follow an exit from the EU. Amazingly, those supporters were also ready to forget that Francois Fillon is a full-fledged crook who snatched about a million euros to pay wife and kids for fake jobs. (France has historically had a high tolerance for prevarication among its elected officials from all parties).

Now, the bad news. Roughly 45% of the votes cast on April 23rd were motivated by protest and anger. That won’t go away, and it could shape Macron’s opposition for the years to come, both in the next parliament and in the street.

For the first time in the history of the French politics, the two main parties—the Socialist Party and Les Républicains—are kicked out of a major election. The official socialist candidate, the translucent Benoît Hamon, garnered a mere 6% of the vote. This is consistent with the popularity of socialist president François Hollande, who is ending his term with a 4% approval rate.

Both main parties shared a common accession to a set of values: respect for the democratic process, internationalism, Europeanism.

The new opposition that Emmanuel Macron faces will be formed by two blocks—in theory quite polarized. Both share a symmetrical sympathy for authoritarian regimes—Vladimir Putin for Marine Le Pen, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez for Mélenchon. Both reject globalization and loathe the European project (Le Pen called the EU flag an “oligarchic rag”). The left-populist has refused to give any voting instruction to his supporters for the second round (unlike the leaders of the two mainstream parties) and he keeps promising a ruthless “social third-round,” i.e. systematic street protests and strikes to fight reforms attempted by the new administration (such as retirement system, public service inefficiencies). Looks promising. Better avoid being in France next autumn.

Should he become president, Emmanuel Macron will inherit a deeply divided country. The wealthiest, educated, urban segment of the population will have voted for Macron, while the rural, poor, underemployed will have voted for Le Pen. On one side, a vote of trust and confidence in the future; on the other, fear: 72% of Macron’s voters define themselves as optimists vs. only 29% for Le Pen.

Like in the United States in November, the angry (and scared) white class voted for the far right, while those who can take advantage of a more open society and globalization cast their vote for Macron. As for their attitude vis-à-vis the European Union—a critical element of France’s economic future—the country is now split fifty-fifty.

Which brings us to the parliamentary election scheduled for June. Its outcome will determine Macron’s ability to reform this reputedly “unreformable” country. Traditional parties will do their best to make a comeback, based on their local support. In the next few weeks, Macron will need to morph his one-year-old “En Marche!” (“On The Move!”) movement into a legislative force by creating ex-nihilo local and regional supports. While his party has 250,000 members—twice the living-dead Socialist party—it will be nearly impossible to build a parliamentary majority.

Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen’s Front National is the dominant force in half of French municipalities. Jean-Luc Mélenchon claims to have 450,000 members of his “France Insoumise” (“Rebellious France”) populist movement, with which he might be able to build a solid parliamentary group as well. It’s already a given that the two will join their force at the Assemblée Nationale when it will come to block the Macron administration.

Macron’s En Marche! will have to form a complicated alliance to pass his legislative agenda; he will face a bitter traditional right, and the combined anger of the two extreme parties. For Emmanuel Macron who never held any elected office, it will be a full-scale test of his political acumen.

As often seen in France, we might expect a situation in which the political affiliation of the executive doesn’t match the composition of the parliament. We call this cohabitation. But in the event of a Macron presidency, the opposition will be more destructive than that faced in the previous decades by François Mitterrand or Jacques Chirac.

A final note. In 2002, when right-wing president Jacques Chirac unexpectedly faced the Front National for the second round, he crushed Jean-Marie Le Pen with a score of 82% of the vote. Macron is unlikely to enjoy such a landslide. He will get roughly half of François Fillon’s electorate, about 60% of the raging Trotskyist supporters, and the bulk of the near-extinct traditional socialists.

By contrast, Marine Le Pen will draw from the rightist fringe of Francois Fillon’s voters, plus at least 10% of Mélenchon’s supporters. She may benefit from a large number of voters, on both ends of the spectrum, who will refuse to choose, instead choosing to abstain. This could lead to a scenario under which Macron could lose: If Marine Le Pen decided to slightly soften her rhetoric about a “Frexit” from the EU, she will win a much larger slice of right wing voters; similarly, another terrorist incident could up her chances. This is an unlikely and dreadful scenario for all of us who believe that a Le Pen presidency will be a tragedy for the country.