French vote President on Probation

Emmanuel Macron’s election offers a new chance for France and Europe. But Berlin will also shape whether or not he succeeds, writes Handelsblatt’s France correspondent.
Pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron has defeated far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen in a landslide.

Emmanuel Macron has gone from being an outsider to the most powerful man in France in an unprecedented tour de force. His success tells anyone who's willing to take a risk that determination matters more than what the establishment says.

Mr. Macron was certainly lucky – as Napoleon put it, "you always owe something to chance." Scandal ejected conservative candidate François Fillon from the race. And scandal has much to do with the disintegration of the party system and the elites' narcissism. While socialists and conservatives believed that they had a firm grip on the country, young Mr. Macron saw they were dancing on a volcano sooner than everyone else.

That political storm should be a warning to us Germans and not only because France is our most important partner. Germany is in a much better economic position than France, but its major parties and leaders are just as tired and incapable of leading the way as they are west of the Rhine river. That storm could blow over to Berlin, too.

French voters turned their backs on the main parties because unemployment is so high. But  although everyone says it was the losers of globalization who rejected the socialists and conservatives – even the French don't think the old political families have all the answers anymore. And in Germany, nobody really believes Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz can bring the country through the digital revolution, handle the threat of terrorism, and manage the intersecting currents of climate change and the influx of refugees.

There's no time for Mr. Macron to enjoy his victory

Germany has no equivalent of the quick-thinking Mr. Macron and his rival Marine Le Pen. That would otherwise spell the end of the easy coalition between the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

But there's no time for Mr. Macron to enjoy his victory. When he takes office at the end of the week, he and his new government will have to fight to secure a majority in the National Assembly. Only on June 18 will he know whether he will have enough members of parliament. If not, he will become a lame duck. Despite his success, no more than 45 percent of French voters wholeheartedly supported him; many voted for him to prevent Ms. Le Pen from winning, not because they back his agenda.

Mr. Macron is a president on probation, and he knows it. Effective immediately, he's responsible for 3.5 million people who are unemployed, thousands of radicalized Islamists, and the poverty-stricken banlieue, the city zones where people who have prospects live alongside those who have none. He must also address Europe as a whole, which French support but no longer believe in, as it is at present. Mr. Macron doesn't have any illusions on that front, saying, "I cannot leave Europe the way it is, or else the Front National will win in five years' time."

His work begins at home starting with difficult structural reforms to make the job market more flexible, tighten up unemployment insurance and trim some parts of the pension system. This will lead to dissatisfaction long before the French will see any upturn on the job market.

So Mr. Macron will seek successes in Europe. His immediate concerns include clamping down on social dumping, when workers are posted around Europe for lower wages; better border protection; and streamline government procurement.

Despite criticism, while campaigning, he defended France's cooperation with Germany and the European Union. Now, though, he will turn to Berlin to ask for more movement on the aforementioned issues, as well as on a shared budget, a parliament, a minister for the euro zone and more investment.

Chancellor Merkel signed most of this four years ago with outgoing President François Hollande, but everything was put on hold in the belief that balancing the budget and export surpluses were sufficient as Germany's contribution.

But we can see from the rise of right-wing extremists in Austria, the Netherlands and France, and Italy's slide into the clutches of opponents of the EU just how well this kicking-the-can-down-the-road policy worked.

Mr. Macron presents an opportunity for France and Europe. Whether or not he succeeds depends largely on himself. But Germany is in the same boat. Now, what's needed is a captain to give the order: "Break's over, everyone get back on deck!"

 

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