French Elections Europe's Second Chance

Pro-European candidate Emmanuel Macron's lead in the first round of French presidential elections means the French are willing to extend a hand to Europe. Now it's time for Germany to take it, writes Handelsblatt's Paris correspondent.
Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron has taken the lead in the first round of France’s presidential election.

The French on Sunday proved yet again what they are capable of when they lose their faith in the political elite.

Social-liberal Emmanuel Macron, a total newcomer, came in first in the first round of presidential elections. A little more than a year ago he didn’t even have a party. He only has two years of government experience as economics minister under current French President Francois Hollande.

It makes you want to say “Merci, la France.”

The very fact that he’s not part of the establishment seems to be the basis for the success of this only 39-year-old politician. A majority of the French wants to do away with those parties that haven’t been able to deal with mass unemployment for the past 30 years.

But they don’t want to be too adventurous. Unlike Americans with Donald Trump and the British with Brexit, they didn’t choose the path into the unknown. The majority did not vote for the leftist or rightist demagogues, even though almost 22 percent for Marine Le Pen is still frighteningly much.

On Sunday, France did a great service to Europe.

Less than an hour after voting booths closed, both Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve as well as conservative candidate Francois Fillon who lost last night called on voters to elect Mr. Macron in the second round of elections in May.

Especially for Mr. Fillon, that’s a big deal. He could have chosen the easy way out and called on his followers to abstain, like many in his party suggested. But with surprising and brave bluntness, he said: “Abstaining isn’t in my genes and considering the danger coming from the Front National, I call on you to vote for Emmanuel Macron.” A big gesture.

These messages of support as well as all polls suggest that Mr. Macron will beat Ms. Le Pen in the run-off on May 7. That would mean France consciously choosing Europe, the euro, and a continued close cooperation with Germany.

The extreme danger for the European project that has been the rise of the Front National would be averted, for now. But not forever. If Mr. Macron wins the next round of elections, Europe will get a second chance.

And Germany needs to understand just how deeply disappointed many French people are about the standstill in Europe, even those that haven’t cast a radical vote. Mr. Macron is the best shot at overcoming that standstill.

That means the German government might have to change its way too. It’s not a proper European policy to simply insist on countries adhering to budgetary discipline. Especially considering that Germany itself is violating other European rules, by not investing enough and hoarding savings.

What Europe needs is an initiative for a joint social policy, it needs to prove that it can defend a social system that all the world envies us for.

It should be possible for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the new French government to agree on a joint project. Mr. Macron isn’t shooting for the impossible, he’s even taking up former German proposals. He’s advocating for a joint budget for the euro zone, for example, and a European economics and finance minister.

But first, he needs to win the run-off. As unlikely as a victory for Ms. Le Pen is, last Thursday’s deadly attack on a police officer in Paris demonstrated how quickly the mood in this French election can change. A massive terror attack could propel Ms. Le Pen in the polls, even though her winning would still be unlikely: only 10 percent of French voters believe she would make a good president.

And after the president, the French elect a new parliament. Mr. Macron has to gain a majority in the national assembly with his “En Marche!” movement, or he’s facing five years of sluggish negotiations instead of quick, decisive economic reforms. It’s possible that French voters will provide him with that majority, but it’s not a given.

On Sunday, France did a great service to Europe. Pro-European Mr. Macron showed that you can win even with an entirely pro-European campaign. All Europeans can breathe a sigh of relief now. But they better wait with the party until June.

 

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