LE PEN DEFEATED Macron victory promises Franco-German revival

Pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron has defeated far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen in a landslide. His decisive victory has raised hopes in Berlin that Germany and France can kick-start their stalled partnership.
In spirit, the German government is singing La Marseillaise with Macron's supporters in France. Picture source: Reuters.

A staunch European, a partner of Germany and an admirer of Chancellor Angela Merkel will move into the Élysée Palace this month. Independent candidate Emmanuel Macron has defeated far-right populist Marine Le Pen in a landslide victory in France’s presidential election, securing 66.1 percent of the vote in the run-off election on Sunday.

In Berlin, Mr. Macron’s clear victory raises hopes that Germany and France can rekindle their post-war partnership, known as the engine of Europe, which has stalled in recent years as support for outgoing French President François Hollande collapsed, leaving him unable to lead decisively in Europe.

A former economics minister under President Hollande, Mr. Macron has vowed to implement labor market reforms and make modest spending cuts in a bid to jump-start France’s struggling economy, which suffers from an unemployment rate of 10 percent and anemic growth of 1.1 percent.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel hailed Mr. Macron's victory and praised the 39-year-old president, the youngest in the Fifth Republic's history, as an "excellent French politician." But Mr. Gabriel, who befriended Mr. Macron when he served as Germany's economics minister, expressed deep concern that some 35 percent of French voters backed Ms. Le Pen's National Front.

“Millions in France voted for a populist, radical far-right party," Mr. Gabriel told public broadcaster ARD. "We have bought time, but we have to support Macron and his policies. Otherwise, if he fails, the threat of Le Pen looms even larger and with it the breakup of Europe.”

As the French economy has stalled, Berlin’s influence in Europe has only grown, creating an imbalance in a partnership that has kept the continent on an even keel for six decades. In Germany, exports are booming, unemployment is at record lows and the budget is running a surplus.

France's boy wonder casts his vote. Picture source: Reuters.

Mr. Gabriel, a center-left Social Democrat, suggested that Germany's insistence on austerity, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats, was partially to blame for France's economic problems and the rise of Ms. Le Pen.

Bolstered by a comparatively strong position at home, Chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged as the most influential leader in the European Union, particularly in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the bloc. Some leaders and countries might welcome such influence, but multilateralism and European integration are post-war Germany’s raison d’etre, and it sees France as its indispensable European partner.

German officials have welcomed Mr. Macron’s proposed domestic reforms, which look familiar. Former Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder implemented similar changes over a decade ago in Germany, which many analysts credited with the country’s current economic success.

Mr. Gabriel welcomed Mr. Macron's calls for a common budget, finance minister and parliament for the euro-zone member states, policies that divide the current coalition government in Berlin. The foreign minister pointed the finger at Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble for dragging their feet on such proposals.

"Macron and I developed these ideas together because we were both economics ministers," Mr. Gabriel said. "He wants to reform France, but he needs time to reduce the French budget deficit. What we always demand, that France implement austerity at the same time, damages investments and produces more unemployment."

Mr. Gabriel added that Germany needs to change its course on France and the EU in order to help stave off populism. “The German position has to change,” Mr. Gabriel said. “What we have done up until now to France has brought the French even deeper into crisis. We are making money from this crisis – I believe we are called upon to help him.”

But Mr. Macron might ultimately disappoint his friends in Berlin, not to mention his supporters in France. He is a political novice, having never held elected office, and heads a party, En Marche, that was formed a matter of months ago and has no seats in the National Assembly.

France, then, is not out of the woods yet, nor is Europe for that matter. Parliamentary elections in June will determine whether or not Mr. Macron will actually be able to govern the euro zone’s second-largest economy, or if he will become a lame-duck almost as soon as he moves into the Élysée Palace.

If a coalition of parties opposed to his En Marche movement were to win and appoint a prime minister, Mr. Macron would face a period of what the French call cohabitation, as Philippe Aghion of the College de France told Project Syndicate, adding that Mr. Macron would find himself in virtually a titular role, with a hostile prime minister holding most executive powers.

"To avoid this prospect, Mr. Macron’s En Marche will have to come, literally from nothing, to dominate the parliament," said Mr. Aghion. "To make sure he gets a comfortable majority in parliament to implement his program, Macron will have to get MPs from other parties, from the center right and center left to join a coalition with En Marche."

A failure to gain a majority in parliament would likely result in political gridlock in Paris and only fuel already widespread populist frustration. This, in turn, could give Ms. Le Pen a second life, according to Henrik Enderlein, president of the policy think-tank Jacques Delors Institute in Berlin.

"If he cannot strengthen France and Europe in the coming five years, then Marine Le Pen will be the next president of France in 2022," Mr. Enderlein told Handelsblatt. "Germany also has an interest in Macron being a strong and successful president."

Still, the German government has every reason to savor this moment – at least for now. With Mr. Macron, a staunch supporter of the European Union has defeated anti-euro populism. Far-right candidate Ms. Le Pen had vowed to hold a referendum on France’s membership in the European Union and declared herself the anti-Merkel, not exactly the words of a politician interested in Franco-German cooperation.

Though she has been defeated, Ms. Le Pen's National Front is not going anywhere anytime soon. She garnered twice as much support as her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, when he made it into the second round of France's presidential election against Jacques Chirac in 2002. Given this comparatively strong showing, Europe might be hearing from Ms. Le Pen again.

“Populism has not been defeated, nor has it really been pushed back,” Mr. Enderlein said. “Macron has only bought some time in the fight against populism.”


Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]. Handelsblatt's international correspondent Torsten Riecke contributed to this article.