Sigh of relief as sanity prevails in France

Muhammad Zamir | Published: May 14, 2017 21:14:37 | Updated: October 21, 2017 18:14:57

At 39, Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former banker and a political newcomer has decisively won the French presidential election, defeating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. By doing so he has become the youngest President France has ever had-- and the first President in the Fifth Republic who does not belong to a major party.
Macron entered the second and final round of the French election without the organisational support of any established party, including the left Parti Socialiste or the right Les Republicaines. In the first round of the election, held towards the end of April, he secured 8.4 million votes (23.8 per cent of the votes cast) as opposed to 7.6 million votes (21.5 per cent of the votes cast) secured by Le Pen. This time round Mr Macron won by 66.06 per cent to 33.94 per cent . Macron appears to have done better in the big metropolitan areas and in the west and the south-west. Le Pen did better in the rural peripheries as well as in the north, east and in some parts of the south-east.
It may be recalled that Macron was sitting President F. Hollande's Economy Minister but quit his post to create his own party "En Marche", with its liberal pro-EU agenda. His effort opened up an untapped window. He found a reservoir of support among the young, the disillusioned-but-optimistic and the anti-cynics. Through his energy, his youth, and articulation, he has pulled off a political coup. It also helped that the two main parties held primaries and selected candidates from the outer edges of their respective political camps: Benoit Hamon for the left and François Fillon for the right. This created an opening down the centre. Macron's campaign was further helped because Fillon's campaign was torpedoed even before it got started by the scandal over his wife's job -- and perhaps more by subsequent revelations about his attitude to money.
Macron during his campaign outlined a constructive dynamics to generate support for his candidacy. While doing so he warned against nationalism and promised to boost the economy and improve security. In this context, he sought support for himself by outlining the following wide-ranging measures that he and his team would try and adopt if he got elected as President of France.
This pro-active concept eventually paid dividends. He suggested the following: (a) Economy-make budget-- savings of Euro 60 billion so that France sticks to the EU deficit limit of 3 per cent of GDP; make public investments worth Euro 50 billion spread over five years for environmental measures, apprenticeships, digital innovation and public infrastructure and lower corporation tax to 25 per cent from 33.3 per cent; (b) labour market-boost-- people's purchasing power by cutting their social security contributions, worth about Euro 500 annually for someone on a monthly net salary of  Euro 2,200, allow firms flexibility on the 35-hour working week, but extra hours worked will be free of social security deductions and while maintaining retirement age at 62 also unify pension rules to reduce complexity; (c) Europe-Reform-- by giving the Eurozone a separate budget, finance minister and parliament composed of Members of European Parliament from the 19 countries that use the Euro, insist that in the Brexit negotiations,  the EU Single Market rules will apply fully to all trade partners and also promote free trade deals  like CETA - the EU-Canada deal.
In addition, with regard to other sensitive areas, he proved his pragmatism. Those included (a) Immigration-Creation of a 5,000-strong force of EU border guards, making fluency in French the main qualification for obtaining French nationality and giving all religious leaders comprehensive training in France's secular values: (b) Defence and security-- Recruit 10,000 new police officers, expand prisons to house an extra 15,000 and create an EU defence fund to promote joint military projects and set up a permanent European headquarters. (c) Education--In areas of special need - notably poor suburbs - limit class sizes in primary schools to 12 pupils per teacher, ban children's use of mobile phones at school and ensure that at the age of 18, French teenagers will get a "Cultural Pass" worth Euro 500 to spend on cultural pursuits such as the cinema, theater, books.
He also addressed his concern towards two other issues: (a) Political reform-- proposed cutting the number of public servants by 120,000 - (excluding hospitals), ensuring that MPs do not work as consultants, nor employ family members and cut the total number of Parliamentary Deputies and Senators by about one-third; (b) Energy and environment-- Half of food provided in school and work canteens must be organic or locally produced, there has to be greater efforts towards developing green technologies and renovating one million poorly insulated homes.
This approach on the part of Macron was obviously undertaken to project himself as a candidate who wanted to deliver on the economic and social dimensions of a sovereign Europe agenda. It was also meant to showcase that France's EU path can also be an effective tool to deal with the negative forces of globalisation. Macron's manifesto rightly identified in this context the issue of supporting, for example, EU minimum standards on access to training, healthcare and social benefits, as well as the introduction of social and environmental clauses in trade agreements. These proposals were made alongside a call for reform of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) aimed at preventing the undeniable spill-over effects that a new economic crisis would have on France. Macron undertook this exercise knowing full well that pushing through these reforms could prove politically difficult as other EU partners may want to focus on alternative priorities such as migration and security. Nevertheless, he stressed on this, and must have hoped while doing so that other EU governments, particularly Germany would be tempted to help Macron deliver his reform agenda in the interest of European integration.
It would be pertinent to note here that despite some future challenges the result of the French presidential election has confirmed the singularity of France's semi-presidential regime and the exceptional character of an election that its initiator, Charles de Gaulle, once described as "the meeting between a man and a people". Macron's ability to qualify his one year old movement En Marche! (EM) ahead of Marine Le Pen should hence be seen as resulting as much from his individual appeal to voters as from the lack of credible alternatives among progressive candidates.
Now that the presidential electoral process is over, quite logically, according to analysts, attention will be given in Paris to issues like Brexit, the forthcoming parliamentary election in France in June and the election to be held later on in Germany.  
With regard to the Brexit effect, some are arguing that Macron's business-friendly policies - such as cutting corporation tax from 33 to 25 per cent and making it easier to fire (and therefore hire) workers, will  make France look more attractive to businesses scouring Europe for a potential EU base. Most bankers, for example, had put France near the bottom of the list when mulling any potential moves for those very reasons. A Macron presidency could see that change.
Some observers in the UK are viewing his victory with caution but at the same time are suggesting that he, in all probability would not be a possible impediment in obtaining the better of the measure in future Brexit negotiations. They are pointing out that Macron may want to cut taxes and water down workers' rights, but he has to form a government to do it, and may need the support of French  Socialists who were excited by Benoit Hamon's ideas of a universal  basic  income and 32-hour working week. They are also drawing attention to the fact that Macron still has to overcome the challenge of coalition building in the French Parliament after the parliamentary election to be held next month in June.
Macron will face huge challenges as he attempts to enact his domestic agenda of cutting state spending, easing labour laws, boosting education in deprived areas and extending new supportive facilities to the self-employed. His biggest problem will be that he has a new political party of sorts and still will have to create a working parliamentary majority after the legislative elections next month. He has vowed to field candidates in all the 577 constituencies, with half of them women and half of them newcomers to politics. This has prompted some politicians to remark that Macron with his victory has completed only half of his journey.
Observers have been sceptical about Macron's ability to win a majority with EM candidates alone and have remarked that in all possibility he will have to form a coalition of lawmakers committed to his agenda. Furthermore, his economic agenda directed towards the weakening of labour regulations to fight high unemployment, will in all likelihood face fierce resistance from trade unions and his leftist opponents.
He will also inherit a country which is still in a state of emergency following a string of terrorist attacks that killed more than 230 persons since 2015. This has raised polarisation and populism and created greater sensitivity within the national matrix. This has to be addressed with caution and understanding and in a collective manner. This will enable him to govern effectively.
He will also need to remember that although his Presidential candidacy had support from other political parties, much of it stemmed from the need to defeat Ms Le Pen. More than 25 per cent of the electorate abstained from voting, while a record 11.5 per cent of ballots were left blank or spoilt. He will need to win over the abstainers and those who are sceptical about his political vision. He will also need to address himself towards the left-wing voters, in particular those who  felt disenfranchised by the choice of the final two candidates.
Mr Macron will also have to tackle the fallout from the hacking attack carried out on the final day of campaigning, when a trove of documents relating to his campaign, said to include both genuine and fake documents, was released online.
He will have the difficult task of running a fractious, angry and divided country. However, as an optimist I feel relieved that the French chose a European future. His, as tweeted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was a "victory for a strong united Europe".
The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.


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