‘After the most thrilling and tumultuous election campaign of recent times,’ said The Economist, ‘the French have defied populism and made history.’
On May 7th Emmanuel Macron, a previously unelected politician, and former economy minister of François Hollande’s Parti Socialiste (PS), was the clear winner of the French Presidential election.
The 39-year-old former banker secured over 65% of the vote, comfortably beating Marine Le Pen, the far-right Front National (FN) candidate, who had performed poorly in a televised debate between the two candidates a few days before the ballot.
The vote was ‘an emphatic demonstration that it is possible in a Western liberal democracy to fashion a pro-European, centrist response to populism and nationalism.’
‘Thanks to a combination of fearsome self-belief, a canny reading of the political forces, and a good dose of luck,’ Macron was able to become France’s youngest-ever president, despite having set up his political movement En Marche! just 13 months ago.
His improbable victory leaves the two traditional, establishment parties ruminating on how it all went so wrong.
‘After five years under a Socialist president, François Hollande, the centre-right Républicains thought that this year’s election belonged to them.’ But François Fillon, their candidate – who was the early favourite for the presidency – was never able to fully recover from a scandal that broke mid-campaign in which he was accused of paying his family for fictitious jobs.
The left-wing Parti Socialiste candidate Benoît Hamon’s disastrous score of 6.4% left him a distant fifth in the first round of voting, and with the rising popularity of the far-left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and many PS politicians defecting to En Marche!, the Socialist party looks to be in irreversible decline: several of their high-profile deputies have already jumped ship.
Macron’s original political idea was to try and move the debate beyond ‘the old party division between left and right,’ which he judged to be ‘hampering a proper effort to fashion a political bulwark against the rise of populist nationalism.’
Instead of fear-mongering about the FN, he believed politicians should offer a positive alternative: ‘an open, tolerant, pro-European society, based on encouraging private enterprise, and creating paths out of poverty for globalisation’s victims.’
While many of the French have bought into his ethos, many electors abstained or left their ballots blank, and one-third of the electorate voted for Marine Le Pen: ‘her party, and populism, will continue to weigh on French politics.’
And if the hundreds of political ‘newcomers’ putting themselves up for office under the En Marche! banner lose out in June’s legislative elections, Macron won’t have many allies in parliament, which may well be full of hostile Républicains, who ‘feeling robbed of their turn, are bracing for a fight.’
‘Mr. Macron inherits not only a divided country, but the heavy weight of expectations.’
The hopes of France, as well as the EU, rest on his shoulders, and if he wants to remain credible it is crucial that he keeps his campaign promises, unlike his predecessor François Hollande.
‘If he fails, it will be harder than ever next time to keep populism at bay, and the FN out of power.’