France on the move!

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 28, 2017

 

The results of the first-round vote in the presidential election of April 23 in France produced a sigh of relief among many observers that feared that French voters could follow their US and British counterparts and throw their support behind the populist candidate Marine Le Pen. The narrow victory by Emmanuel Macron makes him the favourite candidate to win the May 7 runoff. Though many people will vote for Macron just to prevent nationalist Le Pen from getting to the Élysée Palace, the man most likely to become the next President embraces some policies that will produce positive results that will undermine the existing threat of populism in France.

 

The French election attracted attention because of two concurrent developments. First, the popularity of National Front candidate Marine Le Pen fed fears that France would follow the anti-globalisation wave that resulted in the victory Brexit in Great Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the US. Second, the extremely low support for candidates from traditional political parties showed the high level of discontent among French voters with the political elite.

 

Because France as an electoral system that requires candidates to win an absolute majority of votes, the fear that Le Pen could become the next president of France was somewhat unjustified. In 2002, after coming out with a surprising second place in the first-round vote, the nationalist, anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic leader Jean Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father) lost to centre-right Jacques Chirac. Chirac received 82.2 percent to Le Pen’s 17.8 percent. Though Marine Le Pen is expected to get a much higher vote share in the 2017 runoff, she will probably also fail to attract support from a majority of French voters. Yet, there is no question that the far right has made significant progress over time in France. Marine is far more popular than her father was. It is true that she has denounced some of the most radical positions her father embraced, but several nationalist and Eurosceptic claims of the National Front that were considered too radical 20 years ago are now mainstream. Thus, the concern over the rise of the far right in France should not be forgotten simply because Marine Le Pen won’t win the election this time around.

Le Pen’s rise is also closely linked to the demise of the traditional parties that have dominated French Politics under the Fifth Republic. The Socialist Party (SP), in power during the François Mitterand administration (1981-1995) and currently in power with President François Hollande, is deeply divided and lacks direction. Three of the top five top finishers in the first-round vote were previously associated with the Socialist Party. In addition to official SP candidate, Benoît Hamon, who received only 6.4% of the vote, radical leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (19.6 percent) and Macron (24.0 percent) also have roots in the Socialist Party. But while Mélenchon has drifted far to the left, embracing Eurosceptic and anti-globalisation views, Macron has moved to the centre, combining traditional leftist causes, like equality and inclusion, with liberal views associated to integration, markets and globalisation. Traditional parties continue to hold sway in French politics at the national level and will likely do better in the two-round legislative elections on June 11 and 18, 2017. But they will face a bleak future if they are unable to transform and adapt to the new reality of voters who are less loyal to party labels.

 

Clear path

Heavily favoured by polls and having received the support of most moderate and leftist leaders, Emmanuel Macron has a clear path to victory on May 7. Though campaigns matter and the discontent of French voters can turn against Macron if he seems too cozy with the unpopular elites, the race is Macron’s to lose. Thus, we should pay attention to the policies that Macron has been campaigning on because they will likely become the priorities of the next French government.

 

Macron’s focus on embracing globalisation and the European Union will put France atop the list of countries that want to shape how the new world order will evolve rather than among those that want to go back to an impossible past. As a former investment banker and former Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs, the 39-year-old Macron will focus on implementing pro-growth policies. If he keeps his promises, he won’t go against markets but will use market incentives to unleash the potential of a creative, productive and discipline labor force in France. He will need to address the concerns of a middle class that fears losing its privileges. Yet, if he goes about doing it by making globalisation work for everyone rather than attempt to block it, he has good chances of succeeding.

 

Macron’s success will be good news for France, a nation that in the past showed the way to a world that searched for a new form of government with more inclusion and expansion of rights. But if Macron succeeds, the world will also have a reasonable and forward looking market-friendly and globalisation-friendly alternative to the international wave of nationalist populism.