Emmanuel Macron has been elected the French President with 66 percent of the vote, soundly beating Marine Le Pen. But according to our international editor Alex Stargazer, he has a tough job ahead of him: France has a high youth unemployment, a significant trade deficit, and a major terrorist problem. What will it take for Macron to reinvigorate faith in political institutions?
It would be no understatement to say that Macron’s victory in the second round of the French presidential elections has made EU politicians sigh with relief. His opponent — the Front National candidate — ran on a platform that included taking France out of the euro, calling a referendum on ‘Frexit’, and turning France into a facsimile of the Vichy Régime. Regardless of standard political considerations, Macron’s success was a victory for all decent people throughout Europe; it demonstrated a rebuttal to neofascism and a vote for liberalism, no matter how flawed.
Although the election is over, the war is not.
But although the election is over, the war is not. Le Pen will be back again; the populists and their ilk will continue fighting elsewhere in Europe, whether in Austria, Denmark or indeed the UK. It is not enough to merely make the arguments for tolerance and European co-operation. Rather, it is also about convincing the voting public that the answer to our ills — be it employment, security in work, the role of supranational institutions, or tensions with immigrant communities — does not lie in embracing the easy promises of populists or the seductive certainty of hatred.
A question for technocrats
Macron now faces the challenge of fixing these many woes. The most pressing, in the case of France, would be terrorism. Hundreds of people have died in brutal attacks such as those in Paris, Nice, or the unfortunate victims of Charlie Hebdo. But how does one solve terrorism? Le Pen’s solution was to declare Cold War on Muslims: a solution that is clear, simple, and (mostly) wrong, to paraphrase the words of the great polemicist HL Mencken. Even so, terrorism is a challenging and complex problem.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, however, the solution may have a lot to do with the other key problem facing France: the economy.
No one seriously doubts the severity of France’s economic malaise. Unemployment stands at 10 percent; for the youth the figure is doubled, and minorities, especially Muslims, suffer even more. France has also faced a trade deficit due to the many factories lost to China or even Eastern Europe. Midway through the campaign, Le Pen visited workers in one such factory. The intervention cost Macron votes, with Le Pen hitting 41 percent in the polls.
Solving the political crisis therefore requires solving the economic one. If Muslim minorities had better employment prospects, and felt less discriminated by French society, then chances are fewer Muslims would embrace terrorism. Likewise, if Macron can bring the factories back, employment would rise; anxiety about immigration, Europe, and globalisation would lower; and French society would start to look much healthier. The question is how, since French politicians of both left and right have thus far failed to provide solutions.
New faces, new ideas
Macron is not exactly a continuity-candidate. The 39-year-old former banker never held elected office before becoming president; he had no party backing, and developed a political movement (En Marche) from scratch. A large part of the reason why he was so successful lies with the French public’s frustration and distaste with the old guard, exemplified most clearly by Fillon’s expenses scandal.
But of course it is not enough to be different; you have to do things differently. And the lesson taught by modern French history is clear: neither the pet theories of the left (lower working hours, universal income, militant unions) nor the right (corporatism, tax cuts for the rich, the religion of free trade) work. The French model is a dud.
It is not enough to be different,
you have to do things differently.
What’s needed is the German or Scandinavian model. This means high unionisation in the work force — but it also means apolitical unions that don’t grind the country to a halt if they don’t like government policy. It means high unemployment benefits, but not un-sackable civil servants. It means a stakeholder model of corporate governance; but it doesn’t mean being anti-business, or having the highest corporate tax in the developed world. Trade is good, but only if everyone plays by the rules: European steel factories must not shut down because the Chinese hand out massive subsidies, or because third world people are willing to work for almost nothing.
Will Macron rise up to the challenge, or will he just be another banker propping up the elite? It remains to be seen, but I wish Macron the best of luck. If not for him, then for France and Europe.