Outgoing French President Francois Hollande (left) and president-elect Emmanuel Macron attend a ceremony at  the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, on Monday. Picture: REUTERS
Outgoing French President Francois Hollande (left) and president-elect Emmanuel Macron attend a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, on Monday. Picture: REUTERS

After the downside shock of 2016’s Brexit and Trump victories, Sunday night’s French election result came as a welcome and extraordinary upside shock. Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, who launched his En Marche! party just a year ago, won a landslide 66% of the vote, beating the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen. The 39-year-old Macron becomes the youngest president in France’s history.

His victory is a heartening sign that the anti-establishment sentiment that fed into the Brexit and Trump outcomes isn’t necessarily all right-wing populism and that there is space for a new politics of the centre. Crucially, Macron campaigned on an explicitly pro-Europe, pro-globalisation, pluralist, open society ticket against Le Pen’s neo-fascist espousal of a narrow and divisive French nationalism.

Macron had help from some lucky political breaks but his campaign also showed him to be politically astute: he recognised that the long-established parties had opened a space to step into — and step into it he did.

That Macron won with such a convincing majority shows the centre can hold and there is still clear support for liberal democratic values. He is socially liberal and pro-business — the farthest thing from the kind of populism that has been on the rise elsewhere. He campaigned on a message of hope and unity, which he took through in his message to the huge crowds that gathered in Paris to celebrate his victory, addressing them as "all of you, the people of France".

The election result is good news for Europe and for the EU, whose future would have been at significant risk had Le Pen prevailed. And it is good news for France, which voted to be open not closed to the world.

The outcome is significant, too, because Macron prevailed despite a last-minute hacking attack, speculated to be by some of the same Russian-US interests who tipped the balance in the US election battle by hacking Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. The hack attack raises new questions about a Russian agenda to undermine western liberal democracies in general and the EU and Nato in particular, but the welcome difference in France seems to have been that the electorate and the media have wised up to the phenomenon. (As have the candidates — there’s speculation that the Macron campaign may have deliberately planted mundane e-mails for the hackers.)

But for all the optimism, it’s a hard and uncertain road ahead. France is deeply divided

But for all the optimism, it’s a hard and uncertain road ahead. France is deeply divided and the election result reflected a very disturbing rise in ultraright support, particularly in the rust-belt areas of the country. The 34% that Le Pen won is double the support her father attracted when he campaigned on an ultraright National Front ticket in 2002. That reflects the expansion of a similarly deeply disaffected and angry populace that upturned politics in the US and UK. The right could make further gains in coming years, especially if Macron fails — and Le Pen will certainly be trying to make gains in June when France holds its parliamentary elections.

The big question now is what kind of government Macron will be able to form and whether he will be able to steer through to parliamentary elections in a way that will enable him to build the support he needs to effect the policy changes he has promised and justify the confidence and the hope he has inspired.

He will have to build a stable majority for his party, which has no MPs yet. The centre-left Socialists and centre-right Republicans, both of which were trounced in the elections, are divided on whether they are willing to work with Macron, and the hard left remains implacably opposed to him.

One thing is for sure: many around the world who never followed French politics before are now riveted. The Macron presidency promises interesting times.

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