At just 39 years, Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker, became the youngest French president in history. The ex-finance minister, who broke off with the Socialist Party to form his own political movement just a year back, has succeeded in breaking France’s decades-old two-party dominance. While Europe celebrates his victory over the Europhobic right wing nationalists, the hardest is yet to come for the young and inexperienced politician, largely perceived as an embodiment of the status quo.
Walking on stage, arms raised to the uplifting sound of “the hymn of joy”, the famed Louvre museum glass pyramid serving as a picturesque backdrop, Macron addressed the nation triumphantly as its new president for the first time late on May 7. His face beaming after his resounding victory (66 per cent of the vote) over far right candidate Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election, the leader of En Marche! (Onwards!) reminded the sea of people waving blue, white and red flags just how far he and his grassroots party had come in the last six months. “Everyone told us it was impossible...but they did not understand France!” exulted Macron, triggering loud cheers.
From investment banking to politics
His rise to the top post has indeed been uncharacteristically meteoric, in a country where aging politicians who keep running again and again (despite being defeated) is still the norm. Born in 1977 in Amiens, a grim city in the north of France, Macron left for Paris at 16. It was an exile of sorts imposed by his parents after he fell in love with his drama teacher, a mother of three and over twice his age then, whom he later married. After attending the top administrative school ENA, which has churned out many French presidents and politicians, Macron initially took a different path. After a short stint in the civil service he joined the Rothschild Bank, where he worked in mergers and acquisitions for four years. He proved himself a skilled investment banker, brokering a 9 billion euro deal between Swiss giant Nestle and Pfizer pharmaceuticals, for which he personally earned a cool 2 million euros.
In 2012, Macron entered politics by becoming an adviser in newly-elected socialist president Francois Hollande’s cabinet, who named him finance minister shortly after. The move was controversial to say the least. The French people hadn’t forgotten that Hollande had proclaimed that “Finance was his enemy” during the campaign against incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy a few months earlier. Many socialists openly voiced their opposition to the appointment of this ex-banker, eyeing with suspicion this unelected newbie in politics. Macron’s neoliberal views, such as the extension of the 35-hour work week, the reduction in public spending and calling into question the iron-clad status of certain categories of civil servants, earned him the ire of both the left and the far right. The latter, represented by the rising National Front (FN), relentlessly depicted him as an agent of globalisation working against the interests of the nation, right until the very last days of the campaign.
The European candidate
Despite these attacks and parallels with Hillary Clinton as “the candidate of the system”, Macron’s popularity has remained surprisingly strong, especially in a country where rich bankers are looked at with contempt and suspicion, if not outright hatred, and where positioning yourself in the political centre has rarely borne any fruits. Many left and right-of-centre politicians rallied around his newly formed movement, En Marche! in the past year. His optimism and boyish charm continued to appeal to many French voters yearning for fresh blood in a jaded political system. Macron’s electoral breakthrough was no doubt helped by the unprecedented weakness of the candidates from the two main political parties in France. None of them even made it to the second round of the elections. French voters’ deep-rooted revulsion and suspicion of the National Front is what gave Emmanuel Macron an overwhelming victory in the final lap.
For Europe, the victory came as a massive relief. After Brexit, the election in France, where anti-EU sentiment is growing strong on both sides of the political spectrum, was being watched closely and pegged as a decisive moment for the future of the European Union, with Macron being the final barrier against populism. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, was quick to tweet a salute to the “European future” chosen by the French, saying he looked forward to a “fruitful cooperation” with the new French president. It was also telling that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the first head of state to congratulate the newly elected president on the phone. The German foreign minister also celebrated on Monday, saying it was “a good day for France and Germany”, stating that France had chosen “to open itself to the world INStead of looking inwards”. The Italian and Belgium press were also unanimous in celebrating Macron’s election as a victory for Europe.
Macron’s commitment to a strong EU is risky in these times. As a centrist in a nation with a growing gap between left and right, he’ll face challenges.
France’s new leader was undoubtedly the most pro-European candidate of these elections. “I speak about Europe, I defend the European project. A few years ago, it was a cliche to say this. Nowadays it’s almost a provocation!”, Macron said in January during a two-day visit to Germany. He is in favour of boosting investments inside the Euro zone, controlling foreign investments on the continent in certain key strategic sectors and putting in place anti-dumping rules for the EU. Mr Macron also wants to put in place “democratic conventions” in each member state, which would help design a common roadmap outlining the short-term policies and priorities of the European Union.
Consolidating power: A major challenge
This unabashed commitment to a strong Europe was a risky—and some would say gutsy—stance, given the nationalist and protectionist wave unfolding across the world, to which France is not immune. The youngest French head of state since Napoleon is all too aware that a sizeable number of voters chose him by default, many going against their political leanings, in a move to stop the xenophobic far-right from getting into power. Now that he is president, Macron will face many challenges as a centrist head of state of a country where the divide between left and right is widening. The first challenge will be consolidating power during the parliamentary elections, which will be held in five weeks. En Marche! Has announced that it will field candidates for all 577 seats of the lower house. It has urged its potential allies on the left and the right of the political spectrum to run under Macron’s party’s banner instead their own. If the party is able to obtain a clear majority, it will have a strong mandate to implement its programme.
The odds for Macron seem, however, far from favourable. According to a recent poll, 61 per cent of the French people are not in favour of En Marche! capturing the lower house. If the main right-wing party—Les Republicains—wins the elections, Macron will have the hard task of starting his mandate with an opposition-run government, greatly limiting his powers. Another hypothesis is that he would have to work with some sections of Les Republicains and the Socialist Party, in a scenario where En Marche! obtains the highest number of seats, but with no absolute majority. The fourth scenario is that of a highly fragmented parliament, split more or less evenly between the five biggest parties, which would again make it impossible for Emmanuel Macron to implement his liberal policies and make France impossible to govern.
(The writer is India correspondent of Radio France Internationale and the weekly L’Express)