The victory chants echoing all around the world-famous Louvre museum underscore that, what was unthinkable a little more than 36 months ago, has just taken place. Emmanuel Macron quit banking, became finance minister and today, has become the French president. It’s as simple as that. At the ripe old age of 39, he is the youngest French leader since Napoleon.
The election result was never really in doubt, provided that the French electorate turned up to vote. This they did, but only just. The turn-out of around 75% is low for such a potentially worrying election and furthermore, the second round saw a record 12% abstentions and invalid votes. The French are playing with fire by not turning out to vote, or by invalidating their votes. This being said, if Marine Le Pen stays at the head of her party, they may not have anything to worry about. Her furious attacks, during the presidential debate, cost her 2 percentage points in the ratings, and probably much more among voters who were still hesitating.
In winning the presidential race, Emmanuel Macron has risen from nowhere, and has taken the hopes of an entire country with him. Or has he? We mustn’t forget that in obtaining 22% and 19% of the vote in the first round, respectively, Marine Le Pen (far right) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (far left) have shown that 40% of the French electorate remain extremely sceptical and angry with the “main stream” politicians, including Emmanuel Macron. The resounding second round win for Macron must be seen just as much a vote for him, as a vote against Le Pen. France remains more divided than ever, and it is now up to Macron to try to unite the country behind him, and show that his bold policies are worth following.
Macron’s rise to the summit of French politics is quite remarkable. A little more than 3 years ago, journalists would have had to ask who he was. A little less than 3 years ago, he was getting on the wrong side of the entire French dental profession, as finance minister, by announcing measures to make the cost of dentures, crowns and bridges, more transparent. He argued that, “it is not a revolution, it is just to explain to the consumer, in a more reliable and transparent way, what he is paying for, and why.” The dental profession described the proposal as “absurd”, and that it wouldn’t make the dental treatment any cheaper. Little did they know, that they were talking to the future president of France.
Paradoxically, winning the presidential race was relatively easy for Macron, facing a Marine Le Pen who lost her way, if she ever had one in the first place. Now, Macron faces the daunting task of getting enough parliamentary support to be able to form a government to implement his vision of France. Macron’s party, En Marche (Forwards), was formed a little over a year ago and, up to now, has less than 600 members. The National Assembly elections are in June, which leaves Macron precious little time to savour his outstanding rise to power. In fact, as his victory speech underlined, he is already campaigning for the upcoming parliamentary elections. “I need you…”, he told his supporters in front of the iconic pyramid erected in the courtyard of the Louvre.
“This evening, it is Europe, it is the world which looks at us! They expect us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment everywhere, threatened in so many places. That we defend freedoms, that we protect the oppressed.”
The biggest problem that Macron will be facing is changing the mentality of ordinary people and, more importantly, of ordinary politicians. Watching the political debate on French television, I have come to realise that nothing has changed since I left France, nearly 20 years ago. Socialist and Republican politicians remain Socialist and Republican politicians, and have still not understood that the French people want a radical change in the way their country is run, away from party ideologies. One comment I heard, that I also heard more than 20 years ago, “the president presides, the government governs”, just shows what sort of battle Emmanuel Macron is facing. Now we have politicians who have completely lost the plot, as well as ones who are incompetent to start with. In the forthcoming National Assembly elections, either Macron obtains an overall majority with candidates from his own party, or he will have to form a government with members from other political parties. It is now clear that next to politicians who want to remain loyal to their respective parties, others are willing to govern either under, or with, Emmanuel Macron. This will inevitably cause deep-rooted schisms within their parties, whose very existence is being threatened. That Macron must assemble or consolidate support as widely as possible, goes without saying. However, the choices he makes must not be seen to reflect a continuity with previous governments, as this has clearly been rejected by the French electorate. We will get a first indication of Macron’s determination to carry out what he preaches, when he names his first prime minister.
The National Assembly elections, consisting of two rounds, are renowned for their richness in political agreements between parties, and tactical voting by the electorate. All this confusion stems from the singularity of the voting system. To be directly elected in the first round, a candidate must not only obtain more than 50% of the vote, but these votes must represent at least 25% of the registered voters, irrespective of whether they voted. This means that if turn-out is low, a candidate obtaining 60% of the vote may not be directly elected. If there is no clear winner in the first round of voting, the first two candidates qualify automatically for the second round. But it is possible for other candidates to stand if their score corresponds to 12.5% of registered voters. It is not uncommon to have three candidates in the second round, the third candidate standing to get “in the way” of one of the others.
Many have described Emmanuel Macron as the “son of François Hollande” or more sarcastically Hollande II. It would be more accurate to say, if an analogy were necessary, that he is the son of François Mittérand. The first socialist president to serve under the Fifth republic promised great things for France. As so often has happened in the past, when a new president comes to power, the French drink too much to celebrate his victory, continue dreaming of better things for a few weeks, and suffer a dreadful hangover for the four and a half years that follow. Even François Mittérand, who had a majority in the National Assembly, could not change the face of France. He did, however manage to refurbish the Louvre courtyard. I fear that Emmanuel Macron’s presidency will be no different. France is a country that cannot be changed, because political and social compromises are not possible. The powerful trade unions have already made it clear that they are not willing to compromise, or even listen, as demonstrated in Monday’s march in Paris.
It all points to a country that will continue to struggle in its “immobilisme” (its “staying-put”). This is true for just about issues affecting people from every single walk of life in the country. It is also the main reason why I left, and have no regrets in having done so. The 19th century French novelist and editor, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, once wrote, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” (“The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing”). Let us hope that Emmanuel Macron, two centuries later, proves him wrong. One thing that he said in his victory speech, he can be sure of: “Europe and the world are watching and waiting.”