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IDSA COMMENT

A Defining Moment for France and Europe

May 09, 2017

The future of the French Republic and that of Europe in its present form as the European Union (EU) were at stake in the recent French presidential election. Emmanuel Macron and his movement (not a party as yet) have won. With a voter turnout of 75 per cent, Macron gained about 66.6 per cent of the vote in the second round of this election and his rival, Marine Le Pen, got the remainder.

But figures do not tell us the acute anxiety the French people felt at the time of the election. They felt that it was the future of their republic which was at stake. They voted in fair majority for Macron because they thought he stood for the values on which the republic was founded. Some, about 36 per cent, voted for Marine Le Pen because they thought that she stood for the French Nation whose security was threatened by Muslim immigrants settled in France and their ally, the Islamic jihadists.

For the French, the election was a defining moment for their republic, just as the 1977 election was a defining movement for Indians, for here too the issue was democracy against authoritarianism. At the age of 37, Emmanuel Macron is the youngest leader to lead France since Napoleon Bonaparte. He is an investment banker, much to the right of the centre in French politics and decidedly pro-EU. On winning the election, the first person whom he talked to was a staunch pro-EU leader, Chancellor Merkel. His policies at home are largely driven by the dictates of the market.

Marine Le Pen, daughter of the redoubtable French politician Jean- Marie Le Pen, is a racist, against Muslim immigrants and a narrow minded nationalist. She is against the EU, though lately she has moderated a little on the issue of the Euro. At one time, she said that the euro was like a “knife in the ribs of France” and that she would abandon the euro and reintroduce the old French franc. She is in favour of, what we called in the fifties, a command economy – the French state in command.

Two clashing visions of France were before the French voters. They chose, with many reservations, Macron and rejected Le Pen, but not wholly, for, her opposition to the EU, in some measure, enjoys the support of a sizeable section of French society.

The two rounds of the French election system provides for a clear verdict but only by suppressing many other interest groups. Take for example this election: in its first round, the Far Left got about 18 per cent of the vote and it represented the interest of many workers as well as Muslim and African immigrants. But it could not reach the second round. Its voters then either abstained from voting in the final round or voted for Macron, who incidentally speaks more for business than workers and immigrants.

Two rounds of voting produce a clear verdict but it does not make for the representation of all social and economic interests in society. This form of presidential system, which came with the establishment of the Fifth Republic under General de Gaulle, was devised to eliminate the multi-party system of the Fourth Republic. In this form of presidential government, only the centrist parties of the Left and the Right compete; small parties have no place in it. Thus, in the Fifth Republic, only the Socialists or the Gaullists and Republicans have held power to the exclusion of many small parties. Some critics of France have called it an imperial republic.

The EU and, to a lesser extent, immigration, were the most contentious issues in this election. Macron’s En Marche movement and the Far Right represented by Francois Fillon were for the EU, while the National Front of Le Pen and the communist left under Jean Luc Melanchon were against the EU. The Communist Left was for France’s withdrawal from both NATO and EU. Taken together, their vote share in the first round was about 49 per cent. This means that half the French people are against the EU.

Macron has a really knotty problem on hand. The irony of all this is that it is France, along with Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, which were founding members of European unity. They signed the Treaty of Rome in 1956 and thus founded what was then called the Common Market. From the Common Market to a common currency, the Euro, some 50 years have elapsed and European unity during this time has travelled a bumpy road. There were moments in these 50 years when it appeared that the ship of unity was almost thrown off its course by tidal waves.

Emmanuel Macron and his German counterpart, either Merkel or Martin Schultz of the Social Democrats, will pilot the European ship from now on. But both have to deal with an issue that is deeply emotive: immigration. Three years ago, Germany under Chancellor Merkel took a bold and very humane decision to admit a million refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. There is still a lot of rumblings in Germany. But should France be asked to take refugees from the Middle East, there will be a revolt there. Germany is committed to this policy in the name of the freedom of movement, but France, Italy, and Belgium are dead opposed to it. And Britain walked out of the EU when it voted for Exit in the referendum last June. On this count, its main campaigner for Exit, Boris Johnson, waved the scary picture of a million Turks and Arabs landing in the British Isles. The prospects frightened the Britons. Immigration is the most divisive issue among the EU countries. Basically, it is Macron and the German Chancellor, whoever emerges the winner in Germany’s September election, who have to weave a common policy on immigration.

There are two countries most affected by the change of guard in Paris: Russia and Britain. Putin did not want Macron in Paris; his candidate for the French presidency was Marine Le Pen. Putin is dead opposed to the EU and wants it demolished. He received Le Pen in Russia last month and there were reports in the French press of her receiving money from Putin. Russian intelligence has also hacked Macron’s communications; it had done that before in the case of Hillary Clinton. Whatever the benefits of this kind of diplomacy, its net result is Russia’s estrangement from Europe and America.

Putin thought that he would be successful in lifting Western sanctions against Russia, but he has failed. Donald Trump, who befriended Putin at one time, is now forced by Congress to continue with sanctions against Russia. And should Russia’s interference in the American and French elections are to be established, their relations will reach rock bottom.

Britain is another country adversely affected by the outcome of the French election. Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered a snap election next month to strengthen her hands in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. With Macron’s victory in France and a pro-EU chancellor in Berlin, May will have to deal with an EU that is strongly united.

Bharat Wariavwalla is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. He lived and studied in France, and has been a keen observer of French politics.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.