Vidya Ram

The road ahead for Emmanuel Macron

VIDYA RAM | Updated on January 12, 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron. File Photo

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The suave French President may want to become a global player, but nagging problems await him as he rolls out his agenda

On Tuesday evening French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May watched the French and English football teams play a friendly in the Stade de France in Paris, after a day of talks in Paris.

The contrast between the positions of the two leaders could have scarcely been more striking. The validation over Brexit that May had sought evaporated on June 8, as her party lost 13 seats after a disastrous campaign by her party and an engaging, passionate one by Labour that saw them surge by more than any party had managed in post-war Britain.

Macron, by contrast, performed spectacularly well, in defiance of critics who had questioned whether his success in the presidential elections would be repeated in the legislative assembly elections, which pitted him, a relative political novice, against France’s seasoned political operators. His new party La Republique En Marche (REM), formed just a year ago, fielded candidates from within existing political circles and brought in approximately half from outside, drawing on people from a range of backgrounds from a full fighter, to lawyers, to a student.

The party, along side its partner MoDem (a smaller, centrist, pro-European party) is now projected to win as many as 450 out of 577 seats in France’s National Assembly, when voters return to vote in the second round that will take place on Sunday, after having won just over 32 per cent of the vote. This would be well in excess of the 290 seats needed to gain legislative dominance.

Macron’s agenda

The results suggest voters embraced Macron’s agenda — including a radical overhaul of France’s labour laws to give employers more flexibility to hire and fire workers — to a greater degree than many had suspected, and were willing to give him the legislative majority to make that possible.

In the wake of the presidential election some polls had suggested public wariness of REM success in the legislative assembly elections, well aware that the record of the previous Socialist Party administration of Francois Hollande had promised so much that had not been delivered upon.

While the results will matter less to bilateral relations than the presidential election (by tradition the French system enables foreign policy to lie largely in the hands of the President), they are likely to be welcomed by India and Indian business: and followed in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Paris to discuss climate change policy, and anti-terror strategies, among other issues. Macron’s now strengthened pro-European voice will also be welcomed as India prepares to restart talks with Europe over the elusive free trade agreement.

The losers

While the disastrous performance of the Socialist Party in the Presidential elections continued (they commanded 9.5 per cent of the vote in the first round, with projections that they could win anything up to 40 seats but could risk potentially falling below the 15 seat threshold needed to form a parliamentary group, while their presidential candidate Benoit Hamon lost his seat), the poll proved surprisingly challenging for Marine Le Pen’s Front National, which came third, winning 13.5 per cent of the vote, well short of the mainstream Republican Party, which had floundered in the first round following the scandal encompassing its candidate Francois Fillon.

There had been considerable concerns that the Front National could present a significant threat to Macron even after his clear victory in the second round of the presidential election.

Also surprising was the poor performance of Jean Luc Melenchon, the radical left candidate whose La France Insoumise party (France Unbowed) managed to get just a 11 per cent share of the vote, though initial analysis suggested that many of his supporters stayed away. In fact, low turn out was a noticeable aspect of the election; below 50 per cent and in contrast to the animated public engagement with the presidential election.

While many suggested it was the result of voting fatigue, to some it’s a dent in Macron’s apparent success, (his effective share of the country’s voter based was 15 per cent, given the low turnout) and one which could point to some of the problems that lie ahead for him as he starts to roll out his agenda.

A global player

Macron has already made a head start on his pledges: one of his government’s first initiatives is to introduce legislation aimed at “cleaning up” French politics by, among other things, banning the hiring of family members by politicians and tightening up of expenses rules. He has also kick started discussions with unions over his proposals to overhaul labour laws. Protests have already taken place in the French capital, suggesting that this will be no easy battle for Macron to win. Also controversial is his move to strengthen anti-terror legislation, which has concerned human rights groups, but which he believes is necessary following the terror attacks, perpetrated by lone wolves or in a coordinated manner, which have taken place in France in the past couple of years.

His ambitions to position himself as a major global player have also become evident: whether it was in his offer to host American climate change researchers in France, or his closely-observed white-knuckled handshake with US President Donald Trump, which he described as a “moment on truth.” While a determined European, committed to the European project, he sought to take a conciliatory role with Britain this week, suggesting that the door may remain open to Britain to return to the EU’s fold.

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Published on June 16, 2017
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