Europe has ducked another bullet. Following the poor showing of the far right in the elections in the Netherlands, Macron’s victory last night in the French presidential election means that the European Union has again avoided a meltdown moment. Not many more to go this year. It does not, however, mean that the EU is out of the woods yet, or that it has resolved any of its crises. Nor does it amount to a decisive defeat of right-wing populism in favour of a return to liberal progressive politics.
At first sight Macron’s victory is decisive. But a more careful examination of the data tells a different story. Defeating Le Pen by a margin of 65-35 is not the humiliation her father suffered in 1982 against Chirac. 11% of those who voted spoiled their papers or left them blank. A further 25% of eligible voters did not bother to vote. Given that many of those who voted for Macron did soi to block Le Pen rather than because of any liking for the youthful candidate, it hardly amounts to a resounding endorsement of his reformist policy agenda. Indeed in the first round of the election, when voters voted for the policy agenda they most supported rather than to block Le Pen, three quarters of voters rejected Macron’s reformist agenda.
Much in that agenda is unpopular across the French political spectrum. France may need labour reform, but French voters don’t want to give up their social and economic model. While Macron looks youthful and fresh now, he is still a member of the French administrative elite (enarque and former investment banker. Unless he delivers quickly the lustre he enjoys now will swiftly fade. It will not be easy. He may find it difficult to construct a parliamentary majority folllowng the Assembly elections. His economic and social policies will come under attack from Le Pen on the right and Melanchon the left. Given his lack of political experience, there is every chance that Macron may be little more successful as president than his one-time mentor Hollande. In that case, Europe may not so much have ducked the bullet, as postponed it for five years, when reinvigorated far right and far left contest the next presidential election.
Even if Macron is able to construct a de facto coalition in the National Assembly for his domestic reform agenda, it will still leave the EU confronting multiple existential crises, which will require more than the leadership of Macron to resolve. The recent Commission White Paper offered a number of options for going forward, none of which offer straightforward further integration. Managing multiple speeds and geometries would test far more competent leadership than the Commission enjoys. Brexit risks becoming a dangerous distraction from developing effective foreign, security and foreign policies. Reconstructing the Franco-German axis will be essential, as will be revamping the European commission. What a new Franco-German axis will look like will not be clear until after the German elections in the autumn. However, who ever wins those, there will remain fundamental differences between Paris and Berlin, especially over long term solutions for the Euro Zone. Macron’s election victory against Le Pen did not solve any of these problems. At best it has bought the EU time to begin tackling them. The question now is whether the other European leaders have the ability or the will to do so. The omens are not great.