Macron's Victory Signals Reform in France and a Stronger Europe

May 8, 2017 3:00 PM
Photo Credit: 
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Emmanuel Macron's victory in the French presidential election clearly demonstrates that the populist dominos in advanced economies outside the Anglo-Saxon world were not even close to falling. The decisive vote also improves Macron's chances of winning a majority in Parliament that could enact his agenda of comprehensive French labor market and pension reforms. Successfully addressing the decades-old sclerosis in the domestic economy would prove the best (if not only) way to ultimately reduce the political appeal of the right-wing National Front party in the long run.

Macron’s triumph with a margin of about 32 percent of the vote—66 percent to 34 percent for his opponent Marine Le Pen—came with a participation rate of only 74 percent, a rate that while low for France was predicted by pre-election polling. Le Pen of the National Front failed to attract many voters from any of the defeated candidates from the first election round. More voters abstained (about 12 million) than voted for the far-right leader (10.6 million).

Macron’s victory follows other success by candidates opposed to populism in Europe. The far-right Freedom Party froze in the Netherlands in March, and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is declining in the polls, making Chancellor Angela Merkel the favorite for reelection in September. Institutions, participation-friendly election systems, and objective media in continental Europe matter more often than assumed by many alarmist political commentators. French voters’ genuine desire for political change did not translate into an extremist result. Macron has proven that audacious and well executed political insurgencies can succeed from the center.

Merkel’s prospects have been further strengthened by the defeat of the German Social Democrats (SPD) in regional elections in Schleswig-Holstein. Macron’s election also means that the Franco-German EU locomotive will be overseen in the coming years by leaders who are strongly pro-European and generally pro-market and pro-globalization. The political consequences of that development will be significant for several reasons. If Italy faces a political and economic crisis, the euro area will have strong Franco-German leadership to set the terms for any involvement. If President Donald Trump pursues policies that set the United States outside the traditional international norms concerning global trade, collaboration on climate change, or human rights, the White House can expect a more unified and robust European response. The same strength of response faces Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, whose presumed reelection on June 8 may be less consequential for Brexit than Macron’s move into the Elysee presidential palace is for European unity.

Although Macron’s election improves the chances of a cooperative legislature—no matter which parties gain control—there is enormous uncertainty hanging over the parliamentary election next month. His En Marche! Party is completely new and untested electorally, and France’s two-round parliamentary election system offers the chance for widespread strategic voting. On the other hand, all newly elected presidents in the Fifth Republic of France have secured a working parliamentary majority in the elections following their victory. Should Macron follow that pattern, his agenda stands a good chance of gaining support. But even if the center-right Republicans—whose presidential candidate Francois Fillon had an economic reform program even more radical than Macron's—win the parliamentary elections, the new French president might well get a parliamentary majority he can work with to overhaul the French economy.

Finally, Macron’s victory could be a harbinger for a new round of EU and euro area institutional reforms. Not only is the president-elect strongly pro-Europe, his domestic reform agenda—if implemented—also could convince Germany that France is once again an indispensable, credible—and almost equal—economic and political partner in Europe. Changing the EU Treaty will not happen any time soon, but a Franco-German agreement to pursue further European institutional deepening is now more likely. Europe has come a long way recently: The fresh agreement on a reform program between Greece, its European creditors, and the International Monetary Fund was a non-event. Europe is stronger today and has moved on.

Macron’s victory highlights how Europe has again defied the doomsayers. Even if the continent remains haunted by populism and political extremism for the foreseeable future, in comparison with other major advanced and emerging economies, it is a relatively stable and predictable place.