Macron hopes to put France back in picture

The French President-elect proclaimed membership of EU to be a necessity for France's future.

Macron hopes to put France back in picture

It was a striking moment when Emmanuel Macron, newly elected president of France, torchbearer of a new politics, strode onto a courtyard of the Louvre to celebrate his victory. As the crowd cheered, waving the tricolor French flag, the choice of music was “Ode to Joy,” the anthem of the European Union. Some people even waved the bloc’s flag, with its circle of golden stars.

For the past year, and longer, the European Union has been politically radioactive, deemed untouchable by most mainstream candidates for national office in Europe. Yet Macron, 39, not only embraced the embattled bloc, he proclaimed membership of it to be a necessity for France’s future: needful of reform, certainly, but something to embrace rather than run from. And he defeated the most europhobic of opponents, the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen.

Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome, said Macron’s victory had helped the bloc avoid a cataclysm. “The alternative would have been the end of the European Union,” she said. “It means France is back in the picture.”

If France is again vital to European affairs, any euphoria is certain to be short-lived. First, Macron faces many domestic challenges in translating his centrist promises into policy and in assuaging those millions who voted for Le Pen, cast blank ballots or did not vote at all.
Beyond that, the European Union can hardly take a victory lap. The bloc has survived the Le Pen threat, but it is still deeply unpopular in many countries and has yet to answer the existential question of what sort of union it wants to be. There are doubts about whether it can inspire Europeans and regain their trust. Nationalism and populism are hardly dead, even in France, where Le Pen has already pivoted to focus on parliamentary elections next month.

The populist threat to the European Union “remains alive and has to be taken seriously,” said Stefan Lehne, a former Austrian diplomat and a visiting scholar with Carnegie Europe. In France, “more than 40% of French voters opted for anti-European populist parties in the first round,” he said, and in Italy, “the Five Star Movement and Northern League could easily win the general election expected to be held in February 2018.” Beyond that, he added, the existing populist governments in Hungary and Poland “constantly put the values on which the EU is based into question.”

If he is a political novice, Macron is also suddenly a power broker in a European bloc dominated by a Germany that is largely ecstatic about his victory and eager for him to succeed, but that is also in conflict with some of his priorities. Macron has called for a stronger European core built around the euro, for a common eurozone budget and for a new “finance minister” for the eurozone — ideas currently anathema to Germany, let alone other French and southern European demands, like eurozone bonds.

“If Macron manages to stop the populist tsunami, he’ll be rewarded by his European counterparts,” said Florence Gaub, a senior analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. “He’ll be able to make some demands that other French presidents could not. Because everyone needs him to be a success, and if it stops with France, maybe it stops forever.”

Having a strong French partner is essential to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who overshadowed her current French counterpart, François Hollande. The European Union does not function without a committed French-German partnership providing leadership and money, and it will function even worse when its second-largest economy, that of Britain, leaves the bloc.

If Macron can forge a strong working relationship with Merkel, they may be able to push through mutually amenable changes to a European Union that has grown too large and diverse for its current structure and that is facing crises of migration, low growth, joblessness, terrorism, debt and a resurgent Russia.

But to be credible to Berlin, Macron needs to deliver on his promises to shake up France’s economy — to produce growth, create jobs, reduce fiscal deficits and cut the size of the state, which currently eats up 57% of France’s gross domestic product, compared with 44% in Germany.

“To be competitive again, France has to reform and kick-start its economy, and the big question is whether Germany and Merkel can help,” said Stefan Kornelius, of the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, who is a biographer of Merkel. “Germany has profited from the weakness of France, but France has to do this itself.”

A larger role
Yet officials in Germany are sensitive to growing resentment in other countries towards their country’s trade surpluses and voting power in the European Union, which will only grow with the British withdrawal. And the French have traditionally spoken up for the bloc’s smaller countries, especially those where the state plays a larger role in the economy.

Macron is pro-European, but he has said that “we have to listen to our people and listen to the fact that they are extremely angry today, impatient, and the dysfunction of the EU is no more sustainable.” If the bloc continues as it is today, he told the BBC before the Sunday runoff, it would be a “betrayal” that could lead to “a ‘Frexit,’ or we will have the National Front again.”

For Britain, Macron’s election is not good news, at least on the face of things. Prime Minister Theresa May says that Britain wants a strong European Union as a partner even after it leaves. But Macron, a former banker, has taken a tough stand on the British withdrawal, known as Brexit, criticising European leaders for trying to make a special deal with former Prime Minister David Cameron before Britons even voted to leave the bloc.
Macron has refused any special post-withdrawal deal for the City of London, Britain’s financial heart. He has also warned that British financial institutions should not be able to sell their services in the eurozone and has called openly for bankers, researchers and academics to leave Britain and move to France.

“It’s the British who will lose the most,” Macron said in a pre-election interview with the global affairs magazine Monocle. “You can not enjoy rights in Europe if you are not a member — otherwise it will fall apart,” he said. “Europe is what has enabled us since 1945, in an unprecedented way, to preserve peace, security, freedom and prosperity in our continent. The British are making a serious mistake over the long term.”

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