Key Takeaways From the French Presidential Elections

May 7, 2017
Josh Lowe
Posted with permission from Newsweek
The centrist Emmanuel Macron decisively won France’s presidential election on Sunday, beating the far-right into submission with a liberal, internationalist agenda.

With more than 99 percent of local areas counted, Macron had taken 65 percent of the vote to his far-right rival Marine Le Pen’s 35 percent.

Sunday brought a remarkable campaign to an end. But what happens now, and what to make of the result? Here’s what you need to know.

The real fight starts now

At times during the campaign, it felt hard to believe Macron’s lead was as commanding as pollsters claimed: After Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, a dramatic upset felt plausible.

But in truth, since the first round on April 23, the former economy minister’s victory was never seriously in doubt. Supporters in the ranks of his movement, En Marche! (Onwards!), have long understood that the really tough battle comes on June 11 and 18 in the country’s legislative elections, when voters pick lawmakers—known as deputies—for France’s National Assembly.

Read more: Emmanuel Macron is set to defeat Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election

In France, a president needs the support of a prime minister in parliament; and the premier must command majority support either from his or her own party or govern in a coalition. En Marche! is only a year old and has never won a single seat. Now, it ideally needs to win 289 of the 577 in the National Assembly.

Macron acknowledges this, pledging in his victory speech to build “a true majority, a strong majority, a majority for change.”

But Macron’s opponents know it too.

The center-right Republicans suffered in the presidential race because their candidate, François Fillon, was mired in a financial scandal. But he stepped down after the first round, and the party quickly made itself heard with an anti-National Front website.

To Macron’s left, meanwhile, the Unsubmissive France candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon never endorsed the En Marche! candidate. Melenchon immediately took to the airwaves to celebrate Le Pen’s loss, but he denounced Macron as a “President-monarch” who would declare “war” on the country’s social security system.

This battle is going to be as tough as the one that’s just finished.

Le Pen: still mighty?

The journey to 2017 for Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front party was long, and riven with infighting.

Since taking over the party leadership in 2011, Le Pen has ruthlessly pursued a rebranding exercise that sought to distance the party from its old, extremist image. She cracked down on anti-Semitism, and emphasized big-state economic policies as much as anti-immigration rhetoric.

But not all party members supported that strategy. The National Front now needs to decide if the vote share Le Pen took—slightly less than double the 17.8 percent her father Jean-Marie achieved when he reached the second round in 2002—is big enough to justify her tactics.

One of the party’s most important alternative voices is Le Pen’s niece, Marion Marechal Le Pen, a proud Catholic who prefers to focus more on conservative values than statist economics.

Speaking to France 2 Television on Sunday, Marion said there were “lessons to be learned” from the election, among them a failure to convince French voters of the viability of its plans for the euro. She may become even more outspoken in the weeks to come.

A gallic shrug

France is usually enthusiastic about its democracy; voters there are much more likely to show up on the day than in America. Turnouts of 80 percent are common in presidential elections.

So the comparatively low turnout on Sunday—official figures are not yet available but an estimate by the pollster Ipsos put it at 74 percent, the lowest since 1969—is striking.

And not all those who did turn up to vote were especially enthusiastic; Ipsos found that about 43 percent of Macron’s voters chose him only to prevent Le Pen from coming to power.

Macron acknowledged this in his victory speech: He spoke directly to “all the French people who voted for me without actually believing in our ideas,” promising to convince them they made the right choice. But he did not spell out a clear plan, promising only to “do everything I must do in order to defend the Republic.”

Macron’s team will hope that, if his economic reform agenda takes off, less enthusiastic voters will come round. But there may be many battles to fight before that, and the country could quickly turn against him.

A vote for Europe

Among the tricolores flailing wildly at Macron’s rallies, there were always plenty of EU flags. A year ago, after Britain voted to leave the bloc, some wondered if it marked thebeginning of the EU’s end. But Sunday’s vote is the latest sign that there’s plenty of fight left in the embattled union.

Leading France, Macron will sit at the helm of one of the bloc’s two most powerful countries, alongside Germany, and will play a huge role in shaping the EU’s direction.

Politicians in London are waiting to find out Macron’s position ahead of negotiations on a new U.K.-EU relationship. The early signs are that he favors a tough line, making sure Britain takes some punishment for leaving. “I am a hard Brexiter” he told Monocle.

On Russia, Macron is unlikely to push for any weakening of sanctions the bloc currently imposes. The Kremlin will not welcome Macron’s victory; he was the only one of the four leading candidates not to favor a softer approach towards Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, Macron wants to reform the EU: he favors much closer co-operation between the countries that use the euro currency, and supports creating the post of a shared finance minister with the power to set shared budgets on some areas.

Hacked off

In the U.S. presidential election, hacking attacks on the email servers of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party set the news agenda, sometimes for days at a time.

In France, Macron’s campaign suffered a similar hack, and a user of the forum 4chan posted stolen emails from the campaign online on Friday. But its impact on the election could scarcely have been weaker.

In part, that’s because the country’s electoral commission warned media outlets they could face criminal charges if they published details of the emails: French election law strictly limits last-minute political coverage that could influence the vote.

And the content of the emails is disputed; the Macron campaign says there are false emails mixed in with real ones.

But with the vote done, journalists will begin poring through the material. If there is a scandal in there, it could harm Macron during the all-important parliamentary campaign.

And the episode highlights the cybersecurity challenges facing democracies of all kinds.

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