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Macron & the problems in France: Elections make history, but here's what comes next

Ramin Jahanbegloo | Updated on: 8 May 2017, 13:53 IST
(Photo by Jef J Mitchell/Getty Images)

French electors made history by choosing Emmanuel Macron with more than 65% of votes. And with that they made Macron the youngest president in modern French history.

With Macron's victory, the French, and other Europeans, need to rewrite the continent's political history, given his pledge to reinvent and consolidate the European Union (EU) with protectionist economics which could confront Brexit.

The least that can be said about the 2017 French presidential election is that it has been very unusual. Up to the last minute of the casting of the votes, the uncertainty and the unexpectedness of the campaign (such as the last minute hacking of Macron’s movement) made the last hours of the French elections rather chaotic. But it all turned out well by the time the results of the second round were finally announced.

The French electors decided not to vote for an ultra-right candidate representing a formerly marginal party. They decided to vote for the new, and young, blood in French politics instead. This said, the second round was especially characterised as a “neither-nor” election since the level of abstention was higher than expected, around 26%.

The turn out was 6.6 percentage points lower than that at the 2012 run-off for president, and about 4 points down from the first round of voting on 23 April.

Picking sides

Those who voted for Marine Le Pen were condemning decades of rising immigration in France while questioning the very nature of the EU. Let us not forget that traditionally, the French presidential elections were contests between the left and the right social and economic visions.

However, the run-off between Macron and Le Pen was more about a radical revision of French politics. That is why, all the establishment candidates lost in the 11-candidate first round, with the exception of two outsiders, Macron and Le Pen. Both appeared detached from the traditional center-left and center-right parties that have ruled over the French Fifth Republic.

Though 'anti-establishment', Marine Le Pen refused all through her presidential campaign to label her party as 'extreme right'. That was also the reason why she suspended her position as the head of the Front National (FN) party as soon as she was elected for the run-off in order to appear more like a president above all parties.

As for Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker at Rothschild and the ex-economy minister for the socialist President Hollande, he built his image as France's future president around the idea of a technocratic impetus and a variety of stimulating economic measures that would help businesses and push labour reforms further.

“Suburban France and rural France have the right to succeed, to develop themselves and we have to permit them to move forward, we have to invest in them,” proclaimed Macron during his campaign.

To many on the right and the left, Macron’s economic measures are not innovative since they are not drastically different from what was put in place by the country’s socialist president, François Hollande.

For the French anti-globalisation nationalists and supporters of Frexit, Macron’s capitalist adventure is more of a social-liberal program rather than a solution to the sufferings of the common French citizens.

Therefore, in a certain sense, these elections expressed a dynamic which represented broader divisions with France itself – and within the rest of Europe.

The face off between the pro-Europe supporters and the French nationalist camp alienated everyone including those who had mounted a spirited defence of welcoming French participation in the EU or those who maintained the high levels of the welfare state in France without the participation of foreigners and immigrants.

What it could have been

For many among the French, Marine Le Pen's victory would have represented a decline of French political culture and its traditional humanistic values.

For others, Macron's success is, more or less, a victory of the status quo, one that in all likelihood will not produce much of a change in the social or the economic structures of the French society.

Nevertheless, the result of the French presidential election is the symptom of a deep malaise, both in the structures French society and those of united Europe.

First, as the polls and the results showed us, France is a fully divided country. Second, the face-off between Macron and Le Pen showed that the globalised French elites will have a harder time, in the future, convincing the unemployed youth and the rural population of France.

Macron’s neo-liberal agenda will not help correct the social inequalities or strengthen workers' rights in France.

Macron has promised to guarantee savings of 15 billion euros in public health spending and to cut corporate tax from 33% to 25%. As for insuring the security of the French citizens, he has promised to build 15,000 extra prisons and to hire 10,000 police personnel. All these remain to be seen, especially at a time when the country's economic growth has ground to a halt.

According to a new 128-page survey, named The State of France, the poor city suburbs will remain the “principal victims of the crisis and of the fragmentation of French Society”. In these neighbourhoods where ten million people live, the unemployment rate among young men is almost 45%. The situation is not better in rural France where some 18% of the country's population live and also suffer from poor economic conditions.

Among them, the elderly earn very little. As for the youth, who are under-qualified, jobs can be hard to come by and services are limited. 

The new president finds himself confronted with a country where the national cohesion is in crisis both economically and politically. Increasing poverty, high unemployment and the risk of losing vital help among the worse-off families are among the first few problems that need to be tackled seriously by the new French government.

Only by doing this will Macron stop the national cohesion from fracturing while bringing back the confidence of the public in its government and institutions.

The rise in abstention in elections, particularly regional and local ones, will be stopped only if the newly elected president can stop the erosion of faith in the integrity of French politics.

France's presidential election reached its climax on Sunday with Macron's victory, but his success will also depend on how he will avoid making the same the mistakes the previous French presidents have made.

First published: 8 May 2017, 12:41 IST
 
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