Lame-Duck President A Not-so-Ideal Partner in Paris

Berlin’s favorite candidate in France’s presidential election is poised to win the vote Sunday. But Emmanuel Macron will probably disappoint Germany’s high expectations.
Winning the election could end up being just the easy part.

The collective sigh of relief in Berlin could almost be heard all the way back in Paris after Emmanuel Macron won the first round of France’s election on April 23. The candidate who had received most endorsements, public or unofficial, from German politicians, came first in a hotly-contested race. Among other contenders, he outperformed two populists whose victory Berlin feared would spell disaster for the future of the European Union. Investors too reacted with euphoria, on the assumption that political risk has fallen. A new survey (by Sentix) of over a thousand investors found that only 13.6 percent of them expect a breakup of the euro zone in the next 12 months, down from 18.7 percent just one month ago.

But despite the general rejoicing in Berlin, even the best possible outcome Germany could hope for in this election might still prove disappointing. Yes, Mr. Macron has a very good chance of winning the run-off vote on Sunday, while far-right leader Marine Le Pen lags far behind in polls. Ms. Le Pen also missed her last chance to close the gap at a bruising televised debate on Wednesday, with two-thirds of viewers saying Mr. Macron was “more convincing.”

And yet, whoever enters the Élysée Palace next week will end up trying to lead a fractured and practically ungovernable country.

If I were in Berlin, I wouldn’t worry about May 7, but I’d be extremely anxious about what comes next. Hans Stark, Head of the CERFA Committee for Franco-German relations

That's why some Germans are wary of rejoicing too soon. A President Macron will have to actually govern the country. And this may prove far more challenging than winning the election. “If I were in Berlin, I wouldn’t worry about May 7, but I’d be extremely anxious about what comes next,” Hans Stark, a German political expert based in Paris, told Handelsblatt Global.

Mr. Stark predicts that Mr. Macron, who created his party just a year ago, will not get a parliamentary majority in the general election on June 18. In effect, Mr. Macron would become a lame-duck leader less than a month after taking office. In France’s hybrid political system, a mixture of European parliamentary democracy and American-style presidential rule, “the president does not have legitimacy to govern without a majority,” Mr. Stark said, noting that France is “extremely polarized.”

In this polarized atmosphere, many of the disgruntled voters who cast their ballots for other candidates may not go to polling stations at all on Sunday. For the French electorate is split into three increasingly irreconcilable camps: populist extremists on the left, populists on the far right, and centrists. The likely gridlock means that France is at risk of “wasting the next five years,” Mr. Stark said. And that would raise the risk that Ms. Le Pen's Front National wins the next election in 2022.

So France’s new government will almost certainly disappoint Germany’s hope for new and joint reforms of the European Union. That does not mean that German politicians are ready to admit this yet. Mr. Macron will eventually overcome any “headwinds” and successfully pass the “painful” reforms France badly needs, said Elisabeth Motschmann, a lawmaker from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU party. “And he can be certain he’ll have the solidarity of Germany and of the EU, because he’s a staunch pro-European.”

He can be certain he’ll have the solidarity of Germany and of the EU. Elisabeth Motschmann, CDU lawmaker in the Bundestag

What Germany’s “solidarity” could look like, Ms. Motschmann wouldn’t say. But Timo Lochocki, a political researcher at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, has an idea. Mr. Macron will “need money from Berlin,” Mr. Lochocki said bluntly. Either Germany could look the other way if France’s budget deficit worsens, or Berlin could discreetly co-fund a “Marshall plan” for infrastructure and innovation in the European Union, which France would benefit from. “Berlin’s overriding interest is to stabilize democracy in the EU,” Mr. Lochocki told Handelsblatt Global, and for that it needs to help Mr. Macron.

But even a successful President Macron could prove to be “an uncomfortable partner for Germany,” said Andreas Jung, another CDU lawmaker, pointing to Mr. Macron’s criticism of Germany’s huge trade surplus on the campaign trail or some of his proposals on EU policy that are at odds with Germany’s stance. An unsuccessful one, one the other hand, would be worse, for he could pave the way to a President Le Pen five years from now.


Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Georgios Kokologiannis, an editor with Handelsblatt's finance team in Frankfurt, contributed to this article. To reach the authors: [email protected], [email protected].