A Vote of Confidence for the European Union?

5 MINS READApr 25, 2017 | 00:33 GMT
The scenario Brussels most feared did not come to fruition in the first round of France's presidential election. But the country's political situation offers little room for complacency.
Emmanuel Macron (L) and Marine Le Pen clinched the top two spots in the first round of France's presidential election April 22 and will square off in a second vote May 7.

After weeks of worry, EU institutions and governments can heave a sigh of relief. The scenario they most feared in France's presidential election — a runoff between two anti-globalization candidates — did not come to pass in the first round of voting on Sunday. Instead, centrist leader Emmanuel Macron wound up in first place, and opinion polls suggest he will defeat the populist Marine Le Pen in the elections' second round May 7. Stock markets in most European capitals rose Monday morning, buoyed by the vote's outcome. But though the results suggest that the status quo in Europe will survive another day, the political situation in France offers little room for complacency.

The election revealed a fragmented electorate. Each of the four leading candidates received between 19 and 24 percent of the vote. According to the vote's breakdown, moreover, France is almost equally divided among pro- and anti-globalization camps. Although Le Pen and left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon have different views on social issues, they share a similar stance on the economy, supporting protectionist measures, an expanded public sector and radical reform in (or even withdrawal from) the European Union. Combined, they received roughly 40 percent of the vote. Macron and conservative leader Francois Fillon, on the other hand, represent two variations on a globalist view that champions free markets, deregulation, a smaller public sector and European integration.

The top two spots went to protest candidates. Whether Le Pen and Macron are political outsiders is a matter of debate, of course. Macron is France's former economy minister and Le Pen a member of European Parliament. Nevertheless, they have little experience in government roles and are critical of the traditional political elites. That the candidates from France's center-right Republican and center-left Socialist parties came in third and fifth place, respectively, reflects French voters' growing distaste for traditional parties.

The success of nontraditional candidates is not entirely unprecedented. Le Pen's father also made it to the second round of a presidential vote in 2002. But the younger Le Pen received 21.3 percent of the vote on Sunday — more than 7.6 million ballots — compared with her father's 16.9 percent (4.8 million votes) in the first round of the 2002 election. Her numbers aren't enough to clinch her the presidency, since most voters will probably back Macron or abstain from the runoff election altogether. Even so, Le Pen's performance suggests that the National Front's ideas are gaining traction in France and that supporting the party is no longer considered taboo.

2017 French Presidential Election: First round results, first-placed candidate by department

At the same time, however, reports that the traditional parties are collapsing may be exaggerated. Macron and Le Pen are popular as individuals, but the parties they represent lack the structural organization and elected leadership of France's traditional parties. No matter who wins the presidential runoff, he or she will need support from the National Assembly to pass legislation. Though the presidential vote dealt a blow to the Socialists and Republicans, they can improve their performance in upcoming legislative elections, slated for mid-June. And that means the next president will likely have to compromise to ensure the country's governability. Otherwise, the next president could be relegated to constitutional roles on defense and foreign relations and have limited influence on domestic policy.

France's role in the European Union was not the focus of the electoral campaign, but the May 7 runoff vote will still be a referendum of sorts on the bloc. Le Pen thinks that the European Union should either be dissolved or relaxed to become a loose pact among sovereign nations that close their borders to immigration and protect their economies from foreign competition. And in the meantime, she believes that Paris must reclaim prerogatives from Brussels. Macron, by contrast, thinks France must acknowledge that it is in a weak position relative to Germany and should therefore accept Berlin as the bloc's leader, if only temporarily, as it tries to influence German politicians. Then perhaps someday, domestic reforms and external factors could return Paris to a position of strength on the Continent.

The German government, perhaps unsurprisingly, welcomed Sunday's results. For one thing, the vote did not produce a runoff between Le Pen and Melenchon. For another, the country's leaders are confident that a Macron presidency will lead to deep cooperation between Germany and France. Though their prediction will probably bear out, Paris and Berlin will still butt heads on a variety of EU-related issues. Many of Macron's proposals, such as the creation of a eurozone budget to sustain investment programs and assist member states in crisis, could prove difficult for Germany to swallow. Introducing these kinds of reforms will be easier if German conservatives lose out in the country's general elections in September and a coalition of center-left and left-wing forces takes over the government in Berlin. But even then, Germany would agree to restructure the European Union to suit France only if Paris were to surrender control of its fiscal policy to supranational structures in return. And about half of the French electorate would balk at that arrangement.

On assuming office, the next French president will face a tough road ahead. France's electorate is skeptical of its leadership, worried about unemployment, concerned about the effect of globalization on the country's economy and identity, and divided over its role in Europe. Potential tension between the presidency and the National Assembly won't make the job any easier, either. By preventing extremist parties from winning the presidency or a significant number of seats in the legislature, France's electoral system has also left millions of voters without representation. Discontent with the country's situation and with the lack of political representation afforded large segments of French society will lay the groundwork for new populist revolts in the future.

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