Emmanuel Macron and wife Brigitte celebrate in Paris, on April 24. Image: Benjamin Girette/Bloomberg

Macron gets second chance to convince France his vision can work

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Emmanuel Macron won another crack at convincing the French public that his pro-business, pro-European vision can work for them, after beating nationalist rival Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s election.

While voters rallied around to give the 44-year-old centrist a second term, many backed him to keep Le Pen out rather than because of their enthusiasm for his project. His margin of victory — 58.5% to 41.5% — was barely more than half of what it had been in 2017.

“Many of our compatriots have voted for me today, not to support the ideas I represent, but to stand in the way of those of the far right,” Macron said at a somber victory rally at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

The president came to power promising a revolution in Europe’s second-largest economy. But after a flurry of action in his first year in office, his reform drive was slowed by protests and brought to a halt by the Covid pandemic. There was more discontent in the country at the end of his term than there had been at the beginning.

“This new five-year mandate must not be a continuation of the previous one,” he said.

Macron divides opinion. About half the French approve of his handling of the economy during the pandemic and his efforts to help end Russia’s war in Ukraine. His approval rating was at 51% in March and the euro rose in early trading in Sydney following the election result. But for many French people, he’s seen as arrogant and out of touch.

Attention is already turning to the legislative elections planned for June, when Macron will be defending the parliamentary majority he needs to push through his program. The results puts the president in a relatively strong position, though he will probably need to form alliances with other parties and Le Pen urged her supporters to continue their campaigning ahead of that vote.

“The result in itself represents a stunning victory,” Le Pen told her supporters, before leading them in a chorus of ‘The Marseillaise,’ the national anthem. “Millions of people voted for the national camp and for change.”

Macron’s challenge will be to heal the rifts in the country and muster support for his plans to make the country more competitive by overhauling social policies such as pensions and improving the country’s economic fundamentals. The Bank of France estimates that the growth potential of the French economy is lower now than it ever was under Macron’s much-derided predecessor Francois Hollande.

“We must rebuild with everyone, without leaving anyone on the sidelines, to build a society where people live better, breathe better,” Barbara Pompili, the environment minister, said in a brief interview at his victory rally. “Still we have a strong far right. And higher abstention. We need to take it into account. We can do that by thinking more about how to better unite citizens.”

The response to the result was more enthusiastic among France’s European allies. They had been concerned at the prospect of a nationalist with longstanding sympathies for Russia taking power at a time when the European Union is confronting Vladimir Putin over his war with Ukraine.

German, Spanish and Portuguese leaders took the unusual step of wading into the domestic affairs of another country by calling on French voters not to support her in a joint column published in several newspapers on April 21. They described her as the candidate “who openly sides with those who attack our freedom and democracy.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the first foreign leader to speak to Macron following his victory, said in a Tweet that Macron’s victory showed a strong commitment to Europe. “I am pleased that we will be continuing our good cooperation,” he said, adding that they will meet in person as soon as possible.

The president’s main focus on Sunday night though was on his domestic concerns. This election campaign has pushed France into unchartered territory, transforming its political landscape into three blocs — Macron in the center, the far-left led by Jean Luc Melenchon and the far right, which Le Pen has at times struggled to control.

“The national bloc also needs to unite and mobilize. Our responsibility is huge,” said Eric Zemmour, a nationalist rival to Le Pen who had threatened to overtake her in the first round two weeks ago. “We will fight for ideas in each city and village of France, on the Internet and in the media.”

Last week, Macron struck a humble note on the campaign trail as he reflected on the challenges ahead and said he was ready to negotiate, even on pension reform. That was reflected also in his celebrations. In 2017, he had walked alone across the courtyard at the Louvre museum, this time he was flanked by his wife and dozens of children to a much more subdued version of the European anthem.

“The anger and disagreement must also find a response and that will be my responsibility,” he said. “No one will be left behind.”

© 2022 Bloomberg

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