Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French Presidential election last Sunday had been largely anticipated following his strong showing in the first round of voting, two weeks earlier. However it was certainly not something anyone could have predicted barely a year ago when Macron first launched his new political movement ‘En Marche’ (on the move). At just thirty nine years of age, Macron is the youngest President in French history and the youngest French head of state since Napolean Bonaparte.
However what has impressed many, even more than Macron’s young age and his rapid rise to the highest post in France, has been his choice of political platform. At a time when it seemed that the political debate was gravitating towards extreme positions or in danger of moving towards a nationalistic, populist standoff, he came out strongly in favour of a balanced ‘centrist’ position. Macron has consistently declared that he is “neither right nor left” and whilst promoting a liberal approach on economic issues, he has always stressed the concept of “collective solidarity”.
And instead of denigrating the European Union, he built his electoral platform around the core belief that a united Europe is essential for the future well-being of the people of France and of the other European countries. Macron is openly pro-European and the EU flag was always on prominent display in his political rallies. However, he is also pro-reform and he has spoken about a number of policy deliberations to re-energise the European project. The leaders of the other EU countries promptly applauded Macron’s victory but, as the Guardian has noted, his victory is “more a cause for relief than celebration”.
A victory for Marine Le Pen and her Front National would have been a catastrophe for the European Union but her party remains a formidable force. In the second round she managed to increase her share of the vote from 21% to 34% and, whilst this is well below Macron’s 66%, it is double the number of votes obtained by her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, when he similarly reached the presidential run-off in 2002.
In addition, voter turnout was the lowest in the last forty years and a significant number of voters either left their ballot paper blank or otherwise spoiled their vote such that almost one third of eligible voters chose neither Macron nor Le Pen. It is surmised that many of these were supporters of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon who, although not wanting to vote for the extreme right still decided not to support Macron.
The task facing Macron is a daunting one. He has become president at a time when France is still under a state of emergency in the face of a major terrorist threat and still struggling with very high unemployment brought about by a sluggish economy. Furthermore, it still has to be seen how many of those who voted for him did so because they endorse his stated policies or merely to fend off the challenge from the far right.
Macron’s first test will come very soon when in June France will be holding its legislative elections. He faces the considerable challenge of trying to win a parliamentary majority for his fledgling political movement in a scenario where France’s political landscape is characterised by a strong far right and a strong hard left. Without a majority in parliament it would be difficult for him to deliver on his election promises.
Macron is clearly fully conscious of this predicament. In the immediate aftermath of his election victory, he chose to deliver a speech which was celebratory but not triumphal. His greatest achievement to date is that he has created a new strong centrist platform that is optimistic and ambitious. Addressing thousands of supporters in the grand courtyard of the Louvre, he told them that people everywhere were watching them and waiting for them “to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment, threatened in so many places.” For the moment, at least, they are doing this successfully.