Once Emmanuel Macron won the first round on April 23 it was clear that he would be the next French president. Even if Republican nominee Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the US presidential election and the Brexit vote had induced prudence in predicting with absolute certainty who would win the French election, it was almost inconceivable that Marine Le Pen would win.
Already, in Austria and in the Netherlands, the far Right-wing parties had done less well than expected electorally, despite the increasing public appeal of their agendas. Faced with slow economic growth, Eurozone pains, doubts about the European Union, rising anti-globalisation sentiments, the policies of austerity, social tensions, refugee inflows, Islamic terrorism and the like, public dissatisfaction with the present political order is a reality even in France. But the majority there is still wedded to the values of the French Republic — those of secularism, tolerance, anti-racism, non-discrimination, protection of human rights of all, including immigrants, etc.
The question was not so much as to who would win, but what would be the margin of victory. Macron became a candidate for the presidency only in November without any party machine, with virtually no political experience or a clear agenda. That he was president Hollande’s economy minister for two years exposed him to attacks that he would continue Hollande’s failed economic policies.
The fact that Jean Luc Melenchon, the extreme Left candidate who was in third place in the first round, had not endorsed Macron’s candidature, as the leaders of the Republican and Socialist parties had done, added to uncertainties about Macron’s electoral score. In the event, Macron has secured 65.5% of the votes to Marine Le Pen’s 34.5%.This has been received with relief across the political spectrum as the polls were suggesting a closer finish, with Le Pen scoring around 40%. If she had reached that figure it would have had implications for the parliamentary elections, and, more importantly, for the next presidential election.
Already Le Pen has announced the creation of a new party to enlarge her party’s political base with a view to becoming the major opposition to Macron and to positioning herself for the next presidential election.
Since Napoleon at 40 years, France has not had such a young head of state as Macron at 39 years. While politicians in France are applauding his election as representing vigour, imagination and hope in the practice of French democracy, which is the right sentiment to express at this juncture when relief at Le Pen’s defeat is upper most in their minds, the problems lie ahead.
If Macron has won as expected, it does not mean that the expectations from his victory will necessarily be met. Macron has to govern.
For implementing his agenda, which is liberal — open to Europe, strong relations with Germany, reform of the economy, flexible on immigration and so on — he needs to have a parliamentary majority. His movement, En Marche, has to transform itself into a political party for the parliamentary elections due in June, just a month from now. The rate of abstentions and blank votes in the second round has been the highest since 1969. Many say they have voted to fulfil their obligation but against their heart, such has been their dilemma as they favoured neither candidate.
For the first time in the Fifth Republic, the principal parties had no candidate in the presidential election. Both the Republican and Socialist parties will endeavour to recover from their political marginalisation in the presidential election by performing well in the parliamentary elections. Macron projected himself as a candidate neither of the Left or the Right and his supporters talk of uniting the divided French political class. French politicians acknowledge that the country is deeply fractured politically. Whether the unifying agenda of Macron will work is open to question.
While Europe will heave a sigh of relief that Le Pen has lost and Macron has won, because her victory would have ended the European project, France has a huge challenge ahead of governing itself.
India’s relations with France transcend political parties and we would therefore wish Macron well and find all opportunities to strengthen ties with his government.
Kanwal Sibal is former foreign secretary and former ambassador to France
The views expressed are personal