Political newcomer Emmanuel Macron won a decisive victory in France’s presidential elections, defeating the candidate of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen. Macron’s win is a setback for anti-European Union and anti-immigration populists, says CFR’s Charles A. Kupchan, but the new president will face major challenges. With France in need of deep economic reforms to reverse its sluggish growth and stubborn unemployment, Macron’s youth and political inexperience may hinder his ability to achieve a governing majority in upcoming parliamentary elections. But at least for now, "withdrawing from the eurozone and a ’Frexit’ from the EU are off the table," Kupchan says.
How should we interpret Emmanuel Macron’s victory?
Macron is a pro-European Union centrist; his victory represents a win for European integration, economic reform, and the maintenance of an open and pluralistic France. This outcome, coming amid the Brexit vote, President Donald J. Trump’s victory in the United States, and the rising tide of populism across Europe, is bringing loud sighs of relief from Europe’s political mainstream.
Threats remain: Marine Le Pen and her National Front are not going away. The populist Five Star Movement in Italy is a serious political force, as are populist parties in many other member states. Skepticism toward the EU still runs high among the European public. But Macron’s victory signals a clear win for the mainstream and a setback for the populists.
Will Macron be able to create a new, durable political realignment?
Much will depend on the outcome of the parliamentary elections taking place in two rounds on June 11 and June 18. As a relatively young politician of 39, who formed his own political movement ("En Marche!" or "Onwards!") outside the traditional party system, Macron will face an uphill battle as he seeks to forge an effective working relationship with the legislature. And if the right does well, led by the center-right Republicans, and wins a governing majority in the National Assembly, Macron will likely have a difficult time and could well end up a weak president alongside a strong prime minister.
What has caused the collapse of the traditional center-left and center-right parties in France?
Across the EU, mainstream center-left and center-right parties are losing market share to populist parties on the far right and far left. This trend reflects increasing voter discontent—primarily over poor economic performance and rising immigration—and growing disaffection with the establishment.
“Across the EU, mainstream center-left and center-right parties are losing market share to populist parties on the far right and far left.”
However, center-left and center-right parties, which are pro-EU, remain in power in most member states. In France, candidates from the main center-left and center-right parties were unable to make it to the second round. But Macron is a pro-EU centrist. By avoiding affiliation with the main parties, but still remaining in the center of the political spectrum, Macron found a winning formula against his far-right challenger, Le Pen.
How has frustration with the EU shaped this election, and what role is it likely to play going forward?
Even though Macron won the election and defeated the anti-EU Le Pen, the EU is not yet out of the woods. Britain is in the process of exiting the union, which will be politically and economically painful. Populists on the left and right will remain politically consequential for the foreseeable future, continuing to threaten the ability of mainstream center-left and center-right parties to remain in control, and compelling mainstream parties to embrace some elements of the populist agenda. Unemployment, sluggish growth, immigration, and domestic security concerns promise to continue to fuel discontent and anti-EU sentiment. It is particularly important for member states to undertake economic reforms and increase economic growth.
In other words, Macron’s win is a shot in the arm for the EU, but the patient is still in need of further recovery.
What economic reforms does France need to address its unemployment and lack of mobility for many workers?
Major structural reforms are needed to bring down unemployment, especially among younger workers. Increasing labor mobility and decreasing the impediments that firms face in hiring permanent workers are particular priorities. France has a long tradition of worker protests and strikes, which have in the past proved effective in blocking labor reforms.
“Major structural reforms are needed to bring down unemployment, especially among younger workers.”
Another impediment is the orientation of the French left, which seems to be moving further to the left, potentially making reform more difficult.
Has Le Pen’s challenge shifted the debate in France on her key issues: immigration, security, leaving the eurozone?
Le Pen’s anti-immigrant narrative certainly resonated with many French voters. Although she did not win the election, her campaign underscored the importance of keeping immigration and domestic security front and center. At the same time, her anti-EU narrative is likely to lose its resonance as Macron pursues a pro-EU course and seeks to breathe new life into the Franco-German relationship. At least for now, withdrawing from the eurozone and a “Frexit” from the EU are off the table.
This interview has been condensed and edited.