POLITICS

France's New President Has Tough Road Ahead Despite Landslide Win

Emmanuel Macron’s victory is a relief for the EU, but not the end of Marine Le Pen and populism.

07/05/2017 21:47 SAST | Updated 08/05/2017 18:14 SAST

Independent candidate Emmanuel Macron will be the next president of France after defeating far-right populist leader Marine Le Pen in the final round of the French election on Sunday. 

With most votes counted, Macron claimed 66.1 percent of the vote, outdoing expectations to deliver a decisive rebuttal to Le Pen’s claim that she is the voice of the French people.

Polling in the weeks before the election consistently showed Macron holding around a 20-point lead over Le Pen, who struggled to quell opposition to her extreme policies amid fears that financial markets would crash if she were elected.

Macron’s landslide victory exposes the limits of Le Pen’s populist appeal and proves that she remains too divisive to gain power, despite years of attempting to de-demonize the National Front Party. The result takes pressure off the European Union, which would have had to contend with a possible French referendum on leaving the trading bloc if Le Pen had been elected. 

But Macron’s sizable win is hardly a death knell for Le Pen and the National Front ― her nearly 35 percent of the vote is still an all-time high for the French far-right and would have been unthinkable not many years ago. If Macron fails to deliver on his promise of reforms and economic prosperity, it’s entirely possible that Le Pen may return in a better position next election.

After the vote, Le Pen appeared aware that she would need to continue to shift perceptions of the National Front to further grow support. She said in her concession speech it was time to begin a “deep transformation” of the party in order to move it forward.

“The National Front ... must deeply renew itself in order to rise to the historic opportunity and meet the French people’s expectations,” Le Pen told supporters. 

GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT via Getty Images
A man shouts as he waves a French national flag on the French avenue of the Champs Elysees by the Arc de Triomphe on May 7.

The vote culminates an unlikely and rapid rise to power for Macron. The former banker stepped down as the minister of economy and finance last year to start his En Marche! (Onward!) movement, emerging from an 11-candidate field to become modern France’s first president from a nonestablishment party. At 39, he is set to be the country’s youngest head of state.

Macron, who has never before held elected office, will now be confronted with the immense task of fixing France’s flagging economy, addressing security fears and mending a politically divided country. His biggest immediate challenge, however, will be preparing for the parliamentary elections less than two months away.

En Marche! will need to gain at least 289 out of 577 seats in the June elections to hold a majority. Otherwise, the party will face the possibility of a diminished presidency and gridlocked government. Macron could potentially be forced into a situation known as “cohabitation,” in which he must appoint an opposition prime minister who would have the ability to stymie Macron’s attempts at reform.

Macron has vowed to win an assembly majority, and he received more than 14,000 applications from supporters hoping to run as members of his party. Alternately, En Marche! could ally with another party to attain the numbers it needs to successfully implement his platform.

Among Macron’s proposed reforms are streamlining elements of government bureaucracy, creating a joint finance minister for the EU and playing a greater role with Germany in leadership of the union. Pro-EU officials are hoping that Macron’s election will revitalize the union as it reels from the shocks of the refugee crisis and so-called Brexit.

Benoit Tessier / Reuters
Macron supports are hoping he can revitalize the economy and reform the European Union.

Domestically, Macron will be left to pick up the pieces after a race that fractured France’s established party system and exposed wide ideological divisions among voters. The country has been struggling with a lackluster economy, political scandals and major terrorist attacks in recent years, which have contributed to citizens’ distrust of their government.

There were a record number of abstentions and spoiled ballots in the vote, showing that many were not willing to vote for Macron even given the possibility that Le Pen could win. Turnout was also low compared with previous elections.

France’s election saw the humiliating defeat of the country’s ruling Socialist Party in a collapse of the traditional left that is being seen in countries across Europe, including the Netherlands, Italy and Britain. Macron successfully fended off challenges from both extremes of the political spectrum in order to fill the gap left by the Socialists and other establishment politicians, but now he must deliver on his promise to overhaul French politics.

Le Pen, meanwhile, finds herself in a familiar role as part of the opposition. She will likely seize on any of Macron’s potential failures as proof that her far-right platform is the only true alternative to the ills of French politics. Far-right populist parties like Le Pen’s benefit from being outside of power, allowing them to shift the political landscape rightward without becoming mired in the realities of governing.

The National Front has spent decades driving far-right narratives around political issues such as nationalism, the EU and immigration. France’s election proves that the majority of voters still reject the party’s views on these issues, but it doesn’t mean that the debate over them will go away. As long as governments fail to adequately address the social and economic challenges that have faced Europe in recent decades, figures like Le Pen will continue to find support for their populist appeals.

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