The image of Macron walking out of the Elysée Palace with his predecessor François Hollande amid cheers, as the youngest French head of state since Napoleon, is difficult to place. Despite being a triumph against the spectre of fascism, the narrative around a Macron victory does not bring with it a sentiment of enthusiastic fervour for Macronism.
Interestingly, he had worn a Parisian-made suit valued at €370, a modest sum to spend on such a special occasion. This is especially true when compared to Hollande’s notoriously extravagant spending, which included hiring a personal hairdresser on public payroll at €10,000 per month. And to one of the many scandals of his rival in the election campaign, François Fillon, who had received two bespoke suits from a donor to the value of €13,000.
In their exchange, Hollande had handed Macron the codes for France’s nuclear arsenal, a point often overlooked. With a permanent seat on the Security Council and a suite of nuclear warheads, France is a country possessing all of the trappings of a world power, without the influence it formerly held. Furthermore, with Britain out of the EU, France stands to be even more central in the future of that bloc. Macron stands to be a consequential world leader with an enormous public profile derived from the controversy of his election at the expense of right-wing populism.
Macron’s appointment as interim Prime Minister—Édouard Philippe—is drawn from Les Republicains, most probably as part of a distinct effort to assert himself as a renegade centrist eschewing his history as a member of the Socialist Party. Philippe now must lead Macron’s team into an election in which he is not standing, defending an ideology which is not clearly defined.
Much has been made of the fact that neither of the parties in the second-round election were the traditional parties of the presidency. Indeed, the political environment in France is now fundamentally shaken—though the influence of either Le Pen or Macron on this process is highly questionable. It seems unlikely at this remove that the Parti Socialiste will ever recover from its historic low. On announcing that he intended to stand in the upcoming elections, former presidential candidate for the Socialists, Manuel Valls, declared the Socialists dead. The decision of Philippe to serve as Macron’s prime minister will also worry Les Republicains, who had expected to romp home in these elections, and now stand also to be confined to medium-term irrelevance.
A disquiet has arisen with the perception of social democracy and centrism prevalent throughout the noughties. This disquiet which begat insurgent populism in Britain, France and the United States is not halted by the election of Macron. While his election is a reaction to that populist threat, the fact that he co-opted the tactics and language of populists may only weaken trust in him. In five years time, when he’s up for re-election, the taint of government, particularly a government as centrist as his is expected to be, will tarnish him. Centrism governments exist in most states as a result of a compromise in legislatures composed of broad congregations. Enthusiasm behind compromise is essentially a contradiction in terms.
Macron’s task, then, is threefold.
First, he must win the upcoming Assembly elections. With a new party, and a curiously divided electorate, that task is greater than might be expected for a president who rests on as high a proportion of the vote as he does. The candidates he’s announced so far are best described (dependent on one’s attitude) as fresh faces prepared to shake up French politics, or inexperienced neophytes unprepared for the cut and thrust of governance. How France’s public will warm to these candidates remains to be seen, though polls suggest that REM stand to make significant gains in the elections.
Secondly, he must work out what exactly his party stands for. It’s very tempting simply to view it as a rebadged Socialist Party, which had been too tainted by its brand for any chance of electoral success. However, as a seemingly unashamed centrist, Macron must decide which side of centre he lies. If the right win enough seats to deprive REM of an overall majority, then his ambitions to liberalise French labour laws are likely to be realised. If he requires the support of the Parti Socialiste and Mélenchon’s Left, then his proposals to cull the public service may be threatened, as well as his liberalisation of France’s notoriously progressive labour laws. Given the uncharted territory that this election provides, there’s no guarantee of his government as a progressive force, and no certainty that he will re-assume his former socialist identity.
Finally, and definitely most importantly, as a proud European, he must work to secure the future of the EU. His election, and an apparent rejection of the “Frexit” that Le Pen was pushing, suggests that the institutions of the EU are more resilient than some had realised. France’s influential role in the world had become diminished in recent decades, with the EU a remaining sphere of influence. With Britain out of the EU, and Europhile leaders in both France and Germany, Macron is understandably emboldened to publicly say that he seeks a proportionate response to Brexit, and that he desires that the EU seek a tough Brexit deal.
And now we wait to see.
Fionn McGorry is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.