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Five things to learn from France's presidential election


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Five things to learn from France's presidential election

Hot Topic Learn more about French presidential election 2017

France remains deeply divided

Macron won with a two-thirds share of the vote (66.1 percent) suggesting, on the face of it, the former banker has broad support across the country.

But, what it doesn’t show, is the number of people who decided not to participate in the election or who spoiled their ballot paper.

A quarter of French people registered to vote chose not to take part this time – the highest abstention rate since 1969.

Experts say Macron’s victory speaks more about people wanting to keep Le Pen out of office than anything else.

“Macron’s victory shows that many reject the National Front (FN), but many also feel they were not represented by either candidate or party,” said Dorit Geva, an expert on French politics from Central European University. “France remains deeply divided.”

Brussels shouldn’t be smiling too widely

At the start of the year, after the election of Trump and a few months after the Brexit vote, it looked like a wave of right-wing populism was about to hit the heart of Europe.

Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen were both doing well in the polls ahead of elections in The Netherlands and France.

But, after the victories of Rutte and now Macron, Brussels will be a little less anxious about the EU’s future.

Nevertheless, in the first round of voting in France, anti-EU candidates, namely Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, attracted 40 percent of the vote.

“One of the great revelations of this election season was that French voters like populism, but they also like Europe,” said Geva.

“Even if 40 percent voted for populist candidates by voting for Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélénchon during the first round, those populist candidates started softening their anti-EU messages as election day neared.

“Now they have elected a pro-European president. French voters are telling us something important about the current political mood in France and in Western Europe.

“Citizens want to be represented by a strong personality, and they want to see an effective strong state. But they fear the consequences of a Brexit-style bitter divorce, and want to be part of Europe.

“Still, the EU shouldn’t celebrate too quickly. The French want to see the EU reformed, and they mean it.”

Simon Usherwood, an expert on Euroscepticism from the University of Surrey, also cautioned against Brussels celebrating too much.

“The EU will be very happy to have Macron win since it means one less problem to deal with and potentially they also get a constructive France after five years of Hollande.

“However, the risk will be that this is taken as ‘problem solved’, when there is clearly still much disillusionment in the country: any stumble by Macron will only strengthen Le Pen’s hand, whatever vehicle she builds for the legislatives.”

The fight has only just begun for Macron

The powers afforded to the French president are unrivalled compared with other western democracies.

But Macron is likely to struggle to get any of his reforms through without solid support in parliament.

France will elect MPs in June but Macron’s new political movement, En Marche!, is so new it has never fielded candidates in an election.

“There is a lot of concern regarding how he can govern outside the mainstream parties,” said Geva. “No matter what, there will now be a plurality of parties in parliament like never before.

“Macron’s capacity to govern will hinge a good deal on how much those parliamentary groups succeed in working together.

“With the momentum of his presidential election, there will likely be a good deal of defection from Les Républicains and the socialists to En Marche! for the June elections, Macron will have a reasonable amount of support in parliament.

“But, we can also expect the opposition forces to be mobilised by his victory, and that too will be represented in parliament.”

“Macron’s programme still hangs in the air,” said Usherwood. “He now needs a working majority in the National Assembly (France’s parliament) and that’s going to be much harder.

“Much will depend on how much of the centre-left and centre-right he can attract to him to bolster En Marche!

“From that he will then work out a programme of what’s viable. Key points will have to be reforming the economy and working on social justice topics, since these two things have been at the root of the current malaise.”

The far-right is not going anywhere

Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage said Euroscepticism had taken a “massive leap forward” during the French election campaign and predicted Le Pen would be back in 2022 to win the presidency.

Analysts say if Macron fails to reform France then Le Pen – whether it’s Marine or Marion Maréchal – will be ready to pounce in five years’ time.

Le Pen said on Sunday the FN would be completely overhauled. Her deputy said the party would get a new name. And her father Jean-Marie said her campaign had been undermined by its proposals to quit the Euro and the European Union, suggesting they might temper policies that spooked many French voters.

“Even if the globalists have won today, it doesn’t mean that the populists won’t win tomorrow,” said Daniele Antonucci, an economist at Morgan Stanley.

Geva, meanwhile, says much will depend on NF’s performance in June’s parliamentary elections and the outcome of a likely internal power struggle.

“Marine Le Pen will face significant criticism,” she said. “Despite displaying enormous discipline for years in her attempt at changing the party’s image, her poor performance during Wednesday’s televised presidential debate has led to some reputational damage.

“Currently there are only two National Front members in parliament. As of June, when more National Front members will be elected to the National Assembly, the parliamentary group will become a significant focus of power not only within the French government, but also within the National Front itself. We might see a decline of the Le Pen family’s influence within the party.

“Or, conversely, if Marion Maréchal Le-Pen, Marine Le Pen’s niece, is re-elected to the National Assembly, her importance within the party might grow further. Either way, we can expect the National Front to undergo a bitter period of struggles over leadership, ideology, and strategy.”

Brexit might have just got a whole lot tougher

Theresa May was one of the first to toast Macron’s success, sending her “warm congratulations” via Twitter.

But, behind the pleasantries and platitudes, Britain’s prime minister might be thinking Brexit negotiations would have been easier with Le Pen in the Elysée.

Macron told Channel 4 News before the election: “If your government decides to organise a Brexit, I will be pretty tough on it, because we have to preserve the rest of the European Union and not convey the message that you can decide to leave without any consequences.

“It’s not to be punished. It’s to be consistent with such a decision. You don’t get a passport and access to the single market when you decide to leave.”

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