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Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron looks set to take the French presidency this Sunday. Open Europe's Aarti Shankar discusses why, even in the case of a Macron victory, the EU should not be complacent about the challenges it faces in France.
5 May 2017
Now days ahead of the final round of the French presidential election, it is independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron who looks virtually certain to emerge the winner over Marine Le Pen – who has temporarily stepped down as Front National leader. Polls have reached a quasi-consensus – all expect Macron to achieve around 60% of the vote on Sunday. Let’s not forget French pollsters’ impressive accuracy a few weeks ago, when they predicted the first round result to within a percentage point.
His performance in the televised debate earlier this week only seemed to cement his lead. A snap poll by Elabe after the debate found 63% of respondents believed he was ‘more convincing’, against 34% for Le Pen. A strong majority also believed he offered France the better programme.
There may be some wariness over high abstention rates – particularly after a recent survey run by far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon found 29% of his supporters would fail to turn out, and 36.1% would spoil their ballot. This could be important given Mélenchon gained 19.6% of the vote in the first round of elections, coming a very close fourth place. But turnout would have to be unprecedentedly low to overthrow current expectations. So, assuming Macron will be the next French President, what will this mean for the EU?
The initial reaction will undoubtedly be a big sigh of relief. A President Le Pen, with her intention to take France out of the Eurozone, the Schengen area, and ultimately the EU, would have triggered a deep and potentially fatal existential crisis for the Union. In fact, the EU is already gearing up to celebrate the end of the threat Le Pen poses. European Commission Presider Jean-Claude Juncker has, in an unprecedented intervention, declared his wish for a Macron victory. Similarly, in a recent interview, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “[Macron’s] pro-European campaign is a signal of good Franco-German relations to come.” Yet it would be deeply complacent for the EU to view a defeat for Le Pen as the death knell of anti-EU populism in France.
If Macron wins, this will speak more to the toxicity of the Front National and Le Pen brands than to the French public’s approval of the European status quo. A recent poll found that, of those respondents intending to vote for Macron, 64% were doing so to block Le Pen, against 36% who supported their candidate. Indeed, Le Pen has already recognised the electoral damage her association with the Front National could reap – hence her recent decision to step down as leader, and even her use of the shortened campaign slogan ‘Marine President’.
A lot will also depend on the final numbers. Le Pen already achieved a record high of almost 7.7 million ballots in the first round. If this increases significantly on Sunday, the threat of the Front National will not go away – it will be seen as a mobile party, fully able to expand its voter base in future elections. In particular, a significant Le Pen win in the rural French heartlands – la France Profonde – will be something to watch for.
Polls do not predict a resounding defeat for Le Pen – she is expected to take around 40% of the vote. This would be a dramatic result – particularly compared to the Front National’s historic loss in the 2002 presidential runoff, when leader Jean-Marie Le Pen gained only 17.8% of the vote. Given also that around 49% of the first round ballot went to anti-EU candidates, it would be overly simplistic to conclude that a Macron victory spells the end of Eurosceptism in France.
Nor should the EU should think a President Macron would be an easy ride for the bloc. He wants deep reform of the Eurozone, including the introduction of a Eurozone parliament, government and budget. What Macron is proposing will mean convincing reticent member states, particularly Germany, to agree to a common financing structure and support the introduction of Eurozone finance ministers. It will also require treaty revision – but is there an appetite in the member states now for further referenda?
Macron also faces real domestic governance concerns even if he wins (as, incidentally, would Le Pen). Unless his movement ‘En Marche!’ secures a parliamentary majority in June legislative elections, France will enter a period of cohabitation, where the President and Prime Minister are from opposing parties. In this situation, most executive powers are held by the Prime Minister, reducing the President largely to a lame duck. If a President Macron is unable to address real domestic issues in this term, the effect will likely be a boost for the Front National in 2022 elections.
While Macron’s stance in these elections has been staunchly pro-EU, the EU should not assume his victory will mean a continuation of the status quo. Nor should they forget the domestic factors that have swung his voters – even if he wins, the threat of Eurosceptic populism in France is not likely to go away. And of course, Macron’s movement still faces a significant hurdle in legislative elections – without a parliamentary majority, he will find it extremely difficult to deliver the European reform he has promised.