To the strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and flanked by the flags of the European Union as well as Le Tricoleur, Emmanuel Macron last night introduced himself to the world as the new President of France. He had won 66 per cent of votes cast and seen off the challenge of the Far Right. But that was the easy part. Now he has to govern France.
For the next five years, barring accidents, he will undertake a programme of reform aimed at restoring his country’s battered economy, combatting terrorism and, crucially, maintaining France’s role at the heart of Europe.
The European Establishment was quick to respond. One after another, they trotted out their congratulations, looking ahead with almost indecent haste to his arrival in Brussels as the newest member of the club’s central committee.
For Britain, the news was not good. Westminster likes to pretend that it would have been horrified had Macron’s rival Marine Le Pen won the presidency. But the truth is that a Front National triumph, by threatening the EU’s very existence, would have taken the heat off London and, overnight, made the achievement of an easy Brexit far more likely.
Instead, with Macron installed in the Elysée Palace, Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker can now re-establish the triumverate that traditionally governs the EU, placing Britain in greater peril than before. The new French President is a passionate European. He is also a technocrat. Though he says he wishes no ill upon the United Kingdom, his number one priority is a united Europe. To that end, he will join the other leaders of the 27 in insisting that Britain either settles its accounts in the upcoming divorce proceedings or else be declared a pariah state, excluded from all but the most basic interactions with its former partners.
Theresa May, in conveying her “warm congratulations” to the 39-year-old Macron will have appreciated the irony of the situation. If the UK faced an uphill task last Friday, it now, in addition, must break through a bocage of French intransigence.
All that, however, lies in the future. For Macron, there are more immediate concerns.
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First, his rival for the presidency, Marine Le Pen, is far from a spent force. The Far-Right leader won nearly 34 per cent of votes cast in the second round, and her party, the Front National – which is expected to change its name to something less suggestive of a Fascist uprising – could well emerge as the largest opposition party after next month’s parliamentary elections.
Mme Le Pen told her disappointed, yet still upbeat, supporters last night that she plans a “deep transformation” of the party over the next year, placing it in prime position to exploit the anticipated weaknesses of the Macron regime and to storm the Elysée at the next time of asking. Given that a record 25 per cent of voters abstained yesterday and that 11 per cent of those who did vote spoiled their papers, this could be no idle boast.
Second, Macron has to build a coalition and appoint a cabinet – no easy task for a President-elect without representation in the National Assemby. His En Marche movement, formed only last year, will contest around half of the 577 seats in the legislature due to be contested, in two rounds, on June 11 and 18. But even if he does well and secures, say, 100 seats, he will still require support from the centre-left (the Socialists) and/or the centre-right (Les Républicains) if he is to form an effective government with the strength to push through contentious legislation.
Last week he said that he had someone lined up to be his prime minister. On Sunday night, however, the word was that he would not make any announcement on this key position until next week at the earliest.
Third on Macron’s list of imminent dangers, but with huge disruptive potential, is the trade union movement, which yesterday vowed to organise rallies and protests across the country aimed at forestalling any attempt to row back on the 35-hour-week and to make it easier for employers to fire workers. Put simply, the unions aren’t having this. Even members who voted for Macron in order to keep Le Pen out of the Elysée can be expected to take to the streets, creating a level of confrontation that is the last thing Macron needs as he campaigns for a follow-up victory in the June elections.
And, of course, looming over all of this is the question of security. The outgoing administration of François Hollande did what it could to contain Islamism in France and to kill or capture terrorists who threatened the lives of its citizens. But it was not enough. Perhaps it can never be enough. Macron may yet find that any efforts he makes to restore a sense of well-being and safety to his country will periodically come to grief, undermining his authority and adding to the undeniable underlying support for a Far-Right solution.
Addressing tired but enthiusiastic supporters in Paris last night, Macron said that he had heard the “rage” expressed by voters during the election and that he would work without cease to heal the divisions that already threaten his presidency. How successful he will be, nobody knows.
Everybody knows what the problems are. French manufacturing industry, once cutting-edge, has been blunted by decades of government coddling. Employers, large and small, are reluctant to take on new workers for fear of being stuck with them all the way through to their retirement, at age 62. Thus, unemployment is running at 10 per cent, almost twice the UK level. At the same time, the public sector is almost absurdly bloated. A young person who gets a civil service job aaged 18 or 22 can expect to remain in that job, with or without promotion, for the next 30 years. Even if they take two years off to try something different, their old job will be waiting for them should they change their mind.
Macron has vowed to cut public sector jobs by 120,000 (a far cry from the half million promised by François Fillon). He will also seek to reduce public spending by €60 billion and, over time, extend the statutory working week beyond 35 hours – the shortest in Europe, which many French associate with the Rights of Man but was in fact introduced only in 1999.
All in all, a tough agenda. For the moment, Macron remains a largely unknown quantity. Three years ago, nobody had heard of him. He had never been elected to anything. Nobody knew what he stood for or why he bothered. Today, he is the leader of a nation of 65 million people and chief executive of the fifth-largest economy in the world. As an intellectual, with degrees in philosophy and business administration, and as a banker (who made €2 million in his last 12 months with Rothschild’s), he is not exactly typical of his countrymen. The fact that his wife, his former teacher, whom he met when he was 15, is 25 years his senior, has also raised eyebrows. But already he has revealed a drive and determination, combined with a capacity to inspire and a deep seriousness of purpose, that in politics usually occur only at the highest level.
Don’t write Emmanuel Macron off too early. He may just be here to stay.