Monday, 24 April 2017

Europe’s new hope

Emmanuel Macron’s first-place finish in France’s first round of presidential elections was calming for people fearful of the rising nationalist tide. But Le Pen still poses a clear and present danger.

Standing in front of the EU and French flags last night, the man who came first place in France’s first round of presidential elections spoke passionately of a France at the heart of Europe, and part of a global community.

Emmanuel Macron came top in the country’s first round of voting, and is now heading for a run-off with far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen. In an extraordinary development, the two of them have exiled the country’s two mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties from power. And both could significantly change France from the country it has been under those parties’ rule over the past 30 years. “The people of France wanted change so badly…in one year we have entirely changed the French political situation,” he told the crowd.

Macron only founded his political party, En Marche! (on the move), last year. It is a centrist party whose objective is “political renewal” and opposition to the West’s rising far-right nationalist tide. As Macron looked out over the sea of supporters at his election headquarters last night, there were many EU flags visible in the audience. In a relatively short speech he brought up Europe several times - something France's mainstream parties haven't done for 15 years. Macron said he will renew the European project, “pour la France, pour l’Europe”.

The speech was in stark contrast to that by the anti-EU nationalist Marine Le Pen 40 minutes earlier. Speaking in a smaller room, she told the crowd that only she can save French civilisation. She attacked “savage globalisation” and spoke of the glories of the French nation.

Extremist runoff averted

Global markets soared this morning as news of the election result spread, with the euro trading at a five-month high overnight. This might seem odd considering that a far-right nationalist has made it into the second round (narrowly edging out the centre-right former prime minister Francois Fillon). But the euphoria was due to the worry in the weeks ahead that Macron would be toppled at the last moment by the far-left Communist-backed Jean- Luc Melenchonwho is also (but to a lesser degree) anti-EU.

For two months a run-off between Macron and Le Pen had seemed almost certain. But then suddenly, after impressive performances in two televised debates, the previously obscure Melenchon started surging. Polls just before the vote put him even with Fillon, nipping at the heels of Le Pen and Macron. It was certain that Le Pen’s voters would turn up. Her far-right Front National party has been around for more than four decades and has a hard floor of votes (Le Pen got 18% of the vote in 2012, compared to 21.4% this year). Macron’s party is new, and nobody knew if people would actually turn out.

But they did. An early piece of good news for Macron came early in the evening before polls closed, when it was revealed that the country had around 80% turnout. It’s the same as in 2012, but there were fears that this year would see a turnout even lower than in 2002, which at 71% was the lowest in French history. A big turnout suggested that Macron’s lead in the polls would be matched at the voting booth. In the end he scored higher than his final polls were indicating, with 23.9%.

What's next?

In a snap poll conducted this morning by Harris, 64% of French people say they will vote for Macron on 7 May, while 36% say they will vote for Le Pen. This is consistent with public polling conducted in the past months about people’s intentions for the second round.

Barring any incredible development over the next two weeks, Emmanuel Macron will be the next president of France. There is some concern about what role Russia may play in boosting Le Pen, who is a close ally of Vladimir Putin and receives funding from him. If Russia has been holding on to something akin to the Democratic National Committee Wikileaks emails, and chooses to release the information now, it could be a game-changer.

Even without Russian interference, Macron is not out of the woods yet. He needs to convince people who voted for far-left Melenchon and centre-right Fillon to support him in a so-called “cordon sanitaire” against Le Pen. This happened in 2002, when all parties from left and right came together to support the centre-right Jacques Chirac - even the Communists. The Communists have already endorsed Macron this time around (even if their candidate, Melenchon, has refused). Fillon also very quickly endorsed Macron in no uncertain terms and condemned Le Pen, calling her party “violent”. Even still, it will be a delicate tightrope walk for Macron over the coming two weeks to woo both far-left and centre-right voters. But as a centrist, he is best placed to do this.

Once in power, Macron’s victory will change things in Europe. Brussels, which has been stuck in a depressed funk for many months following the victories of Brexit and Trump, will experience a fresh breath of enthusiasm. Legislative activity in the EU institutions, which has been paralysed for months, will begin to come alive again.

All eyes will be on the German election in September, to see if the winner is the moderately pro-EU Angela Merkel or the strongly pro-EU Martin Schulz. Macron has said he will launch a public dialogue on renewing the EU, with all EU states, in the Autumn following the German election. That dialogue may lead to a constitutional convention. This is not business-as-usual, Macron has assured. Things are about to change, but not in a way that would dismantle the EU. Macron wants to improve it.

Other lessons

There are many lessons in last night’s result. Continuing a trend that has been witnessed across Europe, France’s centre-left was obliterated yesterday. Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon received only 6.4% of the vote (he very quickly endorsed Macron after conceding defeat). It follows the obliteration of the Dutch Labour party in last months election in the Netherlands, and the near-certain obliteration of the British Labour Party in its June election.
Macron’s strategy of leaving the party apparatus (he had been part of Socialist President Francois Holland’s government) was a risky gambit, not just for himself but for France and Europe as a whole. He could have split the centrist vote yesterday and prompted the second-round victory of two extremists. But his gamble paid off, and people in other countries will be watching with interest.

With America’s two political parties in disrepute, Macron’s victory may inspire some political operatives for the 2020 US election. They will know that the risk of launching a viable third party candidate will be to split the centrist vote and give Trump a second term. But at the same time, they will have seen this risky move pay off in France.

France is the only EU country to have a presidential system like the US, and so the lessons may be more limited for Europe’s parliamentary democracies. But the overall lesson seems to be that the main centre-left and centre-right parties are in trouble. Perhaps the best way to save centrism is for centrist candidates to leave their poisoned brands.

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