The French presidential election on Sunday brought relief to Berlin and other European capitals. But it was also a political earthquake that will reverberate across the entire continent.
Before that first round of voting, nervous Europeans feared the worst: a possible run-off between two extremist candidates, Marine Le Pen on the far right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left. So the fact that the pro-European, independent candidate Emmanuel Macron won the largest share of votes provided some consolation. Marine Le Pen’s strong finish in second place caused comparatively little public concern.
How times have changed. Back in 2002, the unexpected success of Le Pen’s father in the first round of the presidential elections sent shock waves through the European Union and France. People took to the streets, brandishing signs that read “J’ai honte” (I am ashamed). Nothing of the sort happened this week in France. This shows just how entrenched the Front National has become in France. Indeed the party’s anti-European positions overlap with those of Mélenchon and other candidates, who together won about 45 percent of the French vote.
If elected, Macron will be the youngest president in French history, with little previous governmental experience. And even if he already commands respect abroad, notably in Germany, the former economics minister will face three immense challenges.
First, he will take over a country whose political system is in turmoil and could turn against Europe. France’s two mainstream parties, Les Républicains and the Socialists, were trounced on Sunday. The Socialist candidate got only 6.4 percent, as Macron attracted moderate and progressive socialists, while the ex-Trotskyist Mélenchon drew radical leftists and finished with a remarkable 19.6 percent. The Socialist party, traditionally pro-European, could now disintegrate and leave the field to the anti-EU far left.
The center-right is in a similar dilemma. After their loss, the Républicains, feeling pressure from the far right, will now be tempted to emphasize national sovereignty, French interests and a Europe of nation states. This would be a turn away from their traditional pro-European stance, which includes support for the EU’s supranational institutions in Brussels. In short, the two parties that so far carried the European message to French citizens – ensuring their broad support for the idea that a strong Europe is in France’s interest – may abdicate this responsibility.
A Macron presidency might be the last chance for liberal-minded politicians to reform France and the EU.
Second, Macron would have to heal a bitterly divided country. In a pattern reminiscent of last year’s Brexit referendum and the American election, the first round of the French election showed a new degree of radicalization, calling into question even France’s openness to the world. Some 45 percent of voters chose either a far-right or a far-left candidate, and the electoral map shows a France divided into rural and urban areas. The anti-establishment vote was huge. If elected, Macron may have a hard time proving that he is not part of the system and that he listens closely to the people. Yes, he has cast himself as an outsider; but he is also, after all, the product of elite universities and a former minister.
Third, if Macron wins the presidency he will need to make clear that the reform of France goes hand in hand with progress in Europe. In a speech he gave at Berlin’s Humboldt University last January he showed that he understands this connection. But to deliver on his promises, he needs parliamentary support and a cooperative government at home and support in Europe.
The stakes are high. A Macron presidency might be the last chance for liberal-minded politicians to reform France and the EU. Failure to do so may pave the way in five years’ time for a far-right or far-left president who would then begin undoing the EU with a nationalistic, illiberal, inward-looking agenda and promises to “liberate” France from European, international, capitalistic – and yes, German – constraints.
All this means that Germany must work closely with the next French president and listen attentively to French concerns. Germans intuitively see in the European single market the opportunities of free trade. But the French, after a campaign that featured narratives of decline and fear, want the EU to protect (as in “protectionism”) French interests against the outside world.
Germany must also help the new French leader to enact domestic reforms by telling a credible European story about increasing growth, investment, and employment. In doing so, however, Germany must avoid slipping into the role of schoolmaster or bully, which would only feed the Germanophobic stereotypes spread by French populists
For Germany, this implies that if Europe is to move forward with France – even under the leadership of a new, pro-European president – something has to give. Berlin has a choice to make. It should review its sometimes rigid stances on euro-area issues and be open for a compromise that minimizes risk for Germany while still allowing growth-oriented policies. It should also cooperate more with France in foreign policy and defense. These are controversial subjects in Germany. But to keep France on side for the sake of Europe, which is a core German interest, now is the time to make hard decisions.
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