French Elections: Macron’s victory leads to relief but not euphoria amongst EU leaders
Emmanuel Macron, a Centrist, won the French Presidency in a landslide just one year after creating his own political party (“En Marche”, soon to be rechristened “La République En Marche”). On Sunday (7 May) Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the right-wing party Front National (FN), lost, managing only 34% to Macron’s 66%. However, there was a 25.4% abstention rate (12 million), the highest since 1969, an indication of the reluctance of many voters to support Macron, a former banker and economic minister under outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande. Moreover, there were 4.2 million who opted either for a “vote nul” (spoiling the ballot paper) or for a “vote blanc” (submitting an empty ballot paper) – a form of protest sending a strong message that voters were unhappy with both candidates. Although Macron’s victory was greeted with relief all over Europe and was seen as a success against populism, EU leaders also expressed their cautiousness towards some of his ideas.
When Macron walked across the courtyard of the Louvre to give his victory speech on Sunday, he chose the “Ode to Joy”, the EU anthem, sending a strong signal to the European project. In his victory speech he vowed to unite the divided and fractured nation: “I will do everything to make sure you never have reason again to vote for extremes.” Le Pen, however, kept her defiant tone of the campaign in her concession speech, highlighting that she had won more votes than ever before for the Front National.
During the last days of the Campaign, Macron was targeted by leaks and fake news, spread on Twitter and WikiLeaks. His campaign called those moves “an attempt at democratic destabilisation”.
The upcoming Parliamentary election in June is crucial for Macron, since he needs to win a majority in order to go forward with his reforms and manifesto promises. The two big parties – the Socialists and the conservative Républicains- are facing a deep division and their candidates need to declare their support for En Marche or they face the prospect of an En Marche candidate running against them. However, the uncertainty of who Macron will nominate as a new Prime Minister (expected earliest on Sunday, 14 May) has led to further divisions – it was reported that the Socialist are divided in 3 camps now. Both parties cannot hide their dilemma over what to do after their own electoral defeats, support Macron or fight him? The Front National claims to become the country’s “no. 1” political opposition to Macron but this might prove to be difficult since polls show the party will probably only win 15-20 seats in June’s legislative election. Experts say that the “true extent of Macron’s political strength” will not be known until after the June elections.
On Sunday (14 May) Macron will be inaugurated. Regardless of the June results, he is facing tough times with France under a state of emergency after a series of terrorist attacks and still struggling with a stagnant economy.
Macron showed his determination to relaunch the Franco-German relationship, seen as the engine of Europe by choosing to go to Berlin as his first official trip. While the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel was one of the firsts to congratulate Macron on his victory, she showed herself reluctant to commit to anything so far, since she faces national elections in September. However, Martin Schulz, the Social Democrat’s candidate for the elections was very supportive of some of Macron’s ideas (e.g. regarding Macron’s suggestion of euro bonds) but did not agree with his criticism of the German trade surplus. The German media discussed broadly the issue of high number of abstention and invalid votes, and also the various challenges ahead for Macron, the first and main one being the Parliamentary elections in June.
Asian views on the French election result
The election of Emmanuel Macron as the next French President was widely applauded by mainstream media in Asia. Times of India’s editorial compared his election to the “French Revolution” in the 18th century not only because Macron becomes the youngest leader since Napoleon, but also because he has “overcome the wave of populism that has been sweeping the Western world by boldly spelling out a message of hope, openness and innovation in place of nostalgic retreat to a hoary past.” The India’s oldest English language newspaper further hoped that Marco can secure a majority in the upcoming legislative election in order to carry out promised reforms.
China’s Global Times envisioned Macron to “help the EU stop ‘bleeding’ since the Brexit vote” by reforming and reinforcing the EU in close collaboration with Germany. Moreover, referring to the defeat of Marine Le Pen, dubbed “French Trump” by the newspaper, Global Times paid tribute to French voters who “made a wise choice for human civilization in helping to keep it moving forward at such a crucial time, rather than setting it back.”
Equally optimistic are Europe’s diplomats in Asia. For example, German and French ambassadors in India co-wrote an opinion piece in the Times of India (on the Europe Day) explaining why a stronger EU following Macron’s victory spells good news for India. They reaffirmed that Europe will be champions of democracy alongside India, important partners for India in addressing terrorism, and embracing Indian students who want to study in Europe’s world-class education institutions.
French relations with China under Macron also constituted a matter for debate. Chinese media is quick to call Macron friend, depicting the President-elect as “keen student of Chinese history, friend to the nation, and a buffer against an anti-globalization US”. More practically, some Chinese scholars such as Cui Yin of China’s University of International Relations were convinced that Macron is good for Sino-French ties because he needs China to revive the French economy. The favourable views are to an extent unreciprocated. Mathieu Duchâtelm deputy director of the Asia and China programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, was equally quick to remind China that French foreign policy will continue to seek strategic diversity and balance in Asia and avoid being too Sino-centric. In the opinion piece carried by South China Morning Post, he cited such reasons as Macron’s programme mentioning India as France’s first strategic partner in Asia and he talking to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before talking to Chinese President Xi Jinping to back his argument.
Regarding the implications of Macron presidency on the future of France and the EU, Economic Times of India (EOI) and Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review both presented relatively sober views. The EOI’s editorial emphatically pointed out that the voting pattern shows that French voters are both divided and disillusioned. More than a quarter of the electorate abstained, about 6.5% defaced their ballots and 10.6 million voted for Le Pen. EOI urges Macron to adopt “truly inclusive” policies to help those who feel left behind. Nikkei concurred with the EOI arguing that the “President-elect must heal France while revitalizing Europe”. For Nikkei, pulling France out of its economic malaise is a tall order and revitalising “a wounded Europe” cannot be achievable all by Macron himself. France’s role in international affairs is also unclear as Nikkei believed that the liberal Macron will not get on well with such leaders as Trump and Putin.
Interestingly, a columnist of the Australian Business Review, Robert Gottliebsen, found that some of Macron’s proposed policies can bear important lessons for Australia which is now debating the Federal Budget of 2017-18. For example, Gottliebsen argued that Australia should follow Macron’s proposal of making budget savings, cutting public servants, boosting people’s purchasing power by reducing their social security contributions, banning children’s use of mobile phones at school and so on. But Gottliebsen also acknowledged that implementing Macron-style policies requires the establishment of fresh new political parties that disregard the traditional divide between the left and the right.
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