PARIS – It will take time to understand the full implications of the French presidential election’s outcome. And yet we already know that Emmanuel Macron’s victory is symbolically significant not just for France, but for Europe generally.
For starters, Macron’s victory represents a break from the populist wave that has swept across Europe. Since the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and US President Donald Trump’s election last year, populism has posed an existential threat to the European Union. And while Macron’s victory does not mean that the populist threat has been eliminated, it does show that such forces can be contained. And the fact that populism has been contained in France bodes well for other European countries.
Macron’s election also matters because it will probably change the world’s current perception of France. Under Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, France pursued a policy of diplomatic activism, whereby it made substantial contributions to the fight against Islamist expansionism in Africa – particularly in Mali – and against the Islamic State.
But Hollande lacked charisma, and his foreign-policy activism threw into sharp relief France’s faltering economy, which has weakened its standing on the world stage. This has been particularly evident at the European level, where the increasing disequilibrium between France and Germany has made it impossible for France to counter Germany’s austerity policies. I witnessed this firsthand as an adviser to Manuel Valls, who served as Prime Minister in Hollande’s government.
One of Macron’s advantages is that he understands an essential point: any reorientation of French policy vis-à-vis Europe requires strengthening France’s economy. Unlike many left-wing leaders who prefer to attack Europe and blame the EU for all domestic ills, Macron believes that France has been weakened by its own failure to implement structural reforms. Indeed, among eurozone countries, France has below-average economic growth and some of the weakest policies for fighting unemployment.
What is new about Macron is that he was able to clearly articulate this argument during the campaign, whereas most other political leaders today have expediently avoided defending Europe. Macron believes that without deep economic reforms, it will be impossible to change the situation in Europe, or to restore balance to Franco-German relations.
But no one should regard Macron’s election as a panacea that will magically resolve all disagreements between France and Germany. There are significant differences between the two countries’ visions for the future of economic governance in the eurozone. And, contrary to popular misconceptions, France today may be even more inclined toward federalism than Germany is.
While France has called for a true eurozone budget, Germany still favors a simple European monetary fund, to be used only for emergencies. The Germans do not want to tie their hands by creating a European budget, because they do not really want to become more economically integrated with Europe.
Macron, for his part, supports deeper European integration, because he knows that it is the only way to loosen Germany’s stranglehold on EU policymaking. But, unlike his predecessors, especially former President Nicolas Sarkozy, Macron does not want merely to create the appearance of parity between France and Germany. Rather, he views genuine parity as the basis for strengthening France’s economic power. Thus, one should not exclude the possibility that if France does indeed rebound under Macron’s leadership, Franco-German relations might become tenser.
In Macron’s view, France must make changes if it wants Germany to do the same. By implementing urgently needed reforms at home, Macron’s government will be able to insist that Germany finally take action to address the EU’s economic malaise. As proof of his resolve, Macron will probably propose a reform of France’s labor code as soon as the new National Assembly is elected in June. If the reform passes, it will boost investor confidence and shatter the image of a sick France.
But while Europe is Macron’s strategic priority, he will need to address other issues as well, such as France’s relationship with Russia. Here again, Macron stood out from the other presidential candidates by promising to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is noteworthy, given France’s traditional Russophilia, historical fascination with strongmen, and hostility toward the idea of a transatlantic community.
Macron will obviously try to engage with Putin’s government. But he will not forget Russia’s interference in France’s internal affairs. The Kremlin was almost certainly behind the cyber attack against Macron’s campaign in the final hours of the election, and it was openly supportive of his opponent, the far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
To be sure, a country’s foreign policy is shaped by long-term factors that transcend elections and presidencies. The central tenets of French foreign policy will not change in the coming years. But Macron will take advantage of his position as the very young leader of a very old country.
With his vision for France and a crystal-clear pro-EU agenda, Macron could become the leader who revives Europe’s economy and rebalances Franco-German relations. To do so, he will need to revive France’s historical role as a diplomatic and military leader in Europe. If he succeeds, a stronger Europe will emerge – a development that promises to benefit the entire world.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2017