Emmanuel Macron's win will bring short-lived cheer for liberals; divisions in French society will take time to heal

Liberals worldwide are raising a toast for Emmanuel Macron, president-elect of France. The Eurozone is heaving a sigh of relief. It is being said that xenophobic forces have been stopped at the gates before they could take down Europe's liberal edifice. The release of tension is palpable. It's as though gun-toting Marine Le Pen, who took entire Europe hostage, has been subdued. The bullet has been dodged. Let's celebrate.

Yet in Macron's victory, the Eurocrats may have done little more than delay the inevitable. Paradoxical as it may sound, the pro-Euro candidate's win in Europe's nerve centre may end up hastening the European Union's death. That is because in his upbringing, politics and policies, Macron, a bona fide member of the Euro elite, represents the same set of reasons that has triggered the rise of the anti-globalisation wave sweeping across Europe and has proto-fascist parties raising their heads.

It's not just an idiosyncratic aversion towards the European 'big state' controlled by technocrats in Brussels and politicians in Germany, but a deep animosity towards a force that has diluted national boundaries and upended dreams of ordinary Europeans who want a decent life for themselves and a promising future for their kids. In this, there is no difference between residents of the French towns of Tarbes, Agen, Albi, Béziers — globalisation's forgotten zones — and the rust belt states in America.

Unless the markers are horribly wrong and champions of globalisation reverse their policies and take their heads out of the sands of delusion, Macron's ascension to France presidency may give a fillip to the process that saw Brexit, Donald Trump's election, and a stunning rise in Le Pen's vote share.

Brexit leader Nigel Farage is already predicting Le Pen Presidency in 2022.

To the sceptics who're likely to dismiss Farage's statement, consider that the Nationalist Front (FN) leader made it to the second and final round of French presidential polls (while mainstream centre right and leftist parties fell by the wayside) and garnered 11 million votes, translating to a 35 percent voteshare. This is a dramatic rise from the 4.5 million that her father Jean-Marie had collected in 2002 during a presidential run-off against Jacques Chirac.

Emmanuel Macron. AP

Emmanuel Macron. AP

Le Pen threw her father, a convicted racist, out of the party and sought to soften its hard-edged racist and anti-Semitic past but she has nowhere turned close to moving towards the centre. Her 'France First' campaign was shaped around sharp rhetoric against unemployment, EU, immigration and Islamist terrorism. She promised a referendum on EU if elected and sought to "reclaim" France from immigrants. For such a leader to claim 35 percent votes indicates the extent to which Far Right politics have become normalised in France.

And it doesn't stop here. Early data suggests that Le Pen received overwhelming support from the youth. More than 44 percent of young French voters in the 18-24 age bracket voted for her. In comparison, 80 percent of Macron's 65 percent voteshare came from those aged 65 and over.

She received more votes from women than men and two-thirds (63 percent) of manual workers backed her.

Bear in mind that France is not a broken economy like Greece. It has its own set of problems, but along with Germany, it is the engine that drives EU.

As Paul Krugman writes in The New York Times, "France offers a social safety net beyond the wildest dreams of US progressives: Guaranteed high-quality health care for all, generous paid leave for new parents, universal pre-K, and much more."

What must have taken for a majority of French youth to veer towards protectionist Far Right? Chronically high unemployment is the symptom. The malaise lies deeper. The disgruntlement of French youth is aimed at the Euro project. Their disdain for the elites and technocrats who control EU's destiny has found popular expression in Le Pen's voteshare.

For instance, Macron must create jobs for the youth and launch urgent reforms to pull French economy out of a morass but it is unclear how much of control will he enjoy over a tightly centralised Euro economy. No sooner did Euro leaders gulp down their bubbly that German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed the notion of supporting Macron in his domestic reform agenda. "German support cannot replace French policymaking," Financial Times quoted Merkel as saying. "Emmanuel Macron carries the hopes of millions of French people and also of very many people in Germany and in the whole of Europe… (but) I don't see why — as a priority — we should change our policy."

Macron has a five-year term. But in reality his deadline is tighter. He must find a way to shield France from German fiscal austerity, create jobs, alleviate the anxiety disorder around Islamist terrorism, address the disenfranchised in France's forgotten towns, jumpstart the economy, and mend Franco-German relationship. And he must tackle the issue of immigrants.

French thinker Christophe Guilluy, a real estate consultant by profession who has seen the societal upheavals in France from the personalised space of its cities, has published a body of work chronicling the French society from a very personalized quarter. His works have been reviewed by City Journal and the article describes in detail how Guilluy captures through his work.

"France's various social problems — immigration tensions, inequality, deindustrialisation, economic decline, ethnic conflict, and the rise of populist parties. Such an analysis had previously eluded the Parisian caste of philosophers, political scientists, literary journalists, government-funded researchers, and party ideologues," Guilluy noted.

He spoke of how French society is sitting on a powder keg of conflict between ethnicity and multiculturalism and how the French manage on a daily basis the "ethno-cultural questions", while trying to avoid hatred and violence. This France, he notes, is different from the chic lanes and bylanes of Paris or other metropolis. These are on the periphery of French society but that doesn't make their travails any less real.

It is evident that France's youngest president will have a very short honeymoon period. Any misstep, and he will direct the political wind towards Le Pen.

The Far Right leader has huge amount of time, machinations of history and political space to grow and take another, stronger shot at the presidential post in 2022.


Published Date: May 09, 2017 08:58 am | Updated Date: May 09, 2017 08:58 am

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