THE BLOG
05/12/2017 02:27 pm ET Updated May 13, 2017

Weekend Roundup: Macron’s Challenge Has Global Resonance

France is now the iconic test case of whether policies aligned with global integration can answer fears over job loss, security and identity.
Europe looks on after Macron triumphs in France.
WorldPost Illustration
Europe looks on after Macron triumphs in France.

The election of Emmanuel Macron as the new president of France has, for now, stalled the onward march of nationalist and extremist populism across Western democracies. Jacques Attali, a longtime mentor to Macron, put it this way in an interview with me as election results came in: “As in the United States and Great Britain, the main political debate is precisely this: is going back to the past better than going forward? We have answered differently than others in the Brexit and Donald Trump votes. France has sided decisively with the future.” Above all, he emphasizes, voters saw that “a better French future depends on a stronger Europe.” 

Alain Minc, one of the more prominent early supporters of the incoming president and an outside political adviser, also underscores the anti-nationalist European dimension that played out in France. “The most important consequence of the election,” he says, ”is that it will now be possible to relaunch the European construction.” In Minc’s view, the election also signaled “that populism is no longer condemned to the extremist edge.” Instead, a new kind of “mainstream populism,” as he labels it, has emerged. From the populist playbook, Minc explains, “Macron took the idea that political parties are not necessary, and he could directly connect to people at the grass roots. ... By mainstream, I mean pro-European and pro-market — essentially the ‘social market’ model of Germany that combines free-market dynamism with strong social protections.” Minc sees Macron as very much in the mold of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his centrist policies in the United States during the 1990s.

Writing from Paris, Zaki Laïdi concurs that “Macron’s political genius was to see that France’s main divide was not right versus left. He thus realized it was possible to launch a movement against both the Republicans on the right and the Socialists on the left.”

Anne Dias expects further shrewd moves from Macron in the days and weeks ahead as he tries to assemble a parliamentary majority. “Appointing a premier from the center-right party [instead of from the left],” she writes from Paris, “would not only forge an overture to the right to implement economic and security reforms, but also — and this has been Macron’s grand scheme all along — it would create a ‘recomposition’ of the French political landscape.” 

Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist, warns that elections are not the be-all, and certainly not the end-all. “The French vote was important but ultimately not decisive” in defeating those who oppose a more open society and economy, he argues. “And it would be wrong to say the fight is over, even in France, let alone the rest of the West. ... Elections count, but they do not bring the battle to a close.” For Emmott, the key challenge for the long-term survival of liberal democracy is to remain open to the world of trade, technology and immigration, while at the same time closing the growing inequality gap. “Populist nationalists such as Trump and [far-right nationalist leader Marine] Le Pen have sought to frame the debate as being about globalism versus patriotism,” he writes. “But that is to divert attention from the true issue. The real issue is that open, liberal societies have in the past succeeded by combining openness with a strong sense of equality ― a winning formula that has become neglected for so long that today it’s been effectively rendered obsolete.”

How Macron meets this challenge in France will test whether his victory in this election is in the end meaningful. France has one of the most rigid labor markets in Europe, where strict hiring and firing rules guarantee security for those who have jobs and shut out those who don’t. General unemployment remains at a stubborn approximately 10 percent, and youth unemployment is near 25 percent. Innovative companies like Uber have famously been met with stiff resistance — only the beginning of the heady opposition already mounting from trade unions and student activists who oppose Macron’s pro-growth proposals, which they see as paving the way for an American-style precarious situation for workers. 

In short, French voters may have rejected the past, but they have hardly embraced Macron’s vision of the future. Marine Le Pen, who sought to inflame anxieties over immigration and national identity, garnered a substantial just under 34 percent of the vote. More than one-third of the electorate abstained or cast null ballots. Macron’s approval rating as he enters the Élysée Palace appears fragile: 47 percent of the public, according to a recent survey cited by The Financial Times, “do not like” him. 

On the European front, Angela Merkel, the German partner with whom Macron seeks to build a better future for his country and the region, continues to insist on austerity policies and firmly resists the idea of a financial union and a common budget that Macron sees as critical to ending the eurozone’s dysfunction.

Macron succeeded brilliantly as a post-party outsider in exploiting the anti-establishment fervor roiling France. Now comes the hard part of translating his vision into practice.

Other highlights in The WorldPost this week:

 

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