The European Union’s latest superpower is undoubtedly President Emmanuel Macron of France. After handily winning the presidency from Marine Le Pen of the extreme right-wing National Front and allaying the panic of European liberals and the left, he has led his brand new party, La Republique en Marche, to a famous victory in the parliamentary elections. Both the president and the party are newly minted and French voters decided, like Americans last year, to go with someone who is relatively politically untainted. Here the similarities end because Macron, 39, is one of the youngest heads of state ever among the western democracies, while his American counterpart is among the oldest. Moreover, Macron came to office with a message of hope, unlike US President Donald Trump’s grim vision of blasted lands.

For Europhiles and the European Union his election is an injection of oxygen after the dismal U.K. Brexit referendum of last year, followed by the election of the race-baiting, Muslim-baiting Trump in the U.S. Gloomy liberal commentators had feared a dark night of right-wing extremism flowing across the continent, given the far right’s gains in the Netherlands and Austria. In the event, their fears were exaggerated and Macron, though no socialist, has promised not only complete engagement with the Union but also drawn up detailed plans for a radical overhaul of the economy and delivering France from its most persistent plague, a jobless rate of close to 10 per cent. The large parliamentary majority (350 out of 577 seats) gives him a free hand to reshape the economy and the polity.

While liberals may sigh with relief over the result they cannot waste time in celebration, given the grim toll among the left and the centre-left. The presidential election was a body blow for the ruling Socialists of Francois Hollande, who sank to fifth place with just 6.3 per cent of the vote. They recovered a little in the parliamentary election with 7.5 per cent of the vote in the second round but their seat tally sank from 331 to 45. They have been decimated, perhaps beyond recovery. The communists, too, are down to 1.2 per cent of the popular vote and though they have three more seats than the last time, seem on the way to oblivion as well. For the left, then, this election has been catastrophic. One of the pillars of French politics since the Second World War has become a stub. There seems to be no way back for them either, unless Macron makes a complete hash of his mandate.

The same cannot be said for the right because the National Front has more or less held on to its vote. True, it was down to 8.75 per cent from the dizzying heights of 21 per cent in the presidential election, but the erosion was inevitable because there was no way to victory for FN in this case. Le Pen’s defeat to Macron was the trigger as a number of right-wing voters would have swung back to their traditional parties. There is little doubt that Marine Le pen and FN remain a potent force but they have not reached the breakthrough point yet. It could come if the economy weakens, if immigration rises, or if the Hollande malaise strikes the new president as well.

For German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Union’s machine in Brussels the French result is evidence that the European project has not gone off the rails. Merkel too is due for re-election later in the year and after some setbacks in provincial elections her party seems to be on the way back to its stolid, self-contained avatar. Victory would signal that the Union has a life as the two biggest economies (now that Britain is leaving) are fully engaged in the project. But there shouldn’t be any illusions because it is on borrowed time unless the problems with the euro are fixed to ensure that the Greek type of meltdown never happens anywhere else. Secondly, the Union needs to find a way to reverse the increasing democratic deficit among the newer members.

Poland, Romania and Hungary, among the largest EU states, are already there, openly racist, increasingly authoritarian and shutting down the space for a free media. Smaller states like Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovenia are still insular, suspicious of immigrants and opposed to free immigration. They, too, have emerged only recently from dictatorial systems and could, like Hungary and Poland, revert to type. If unaddressed, these tendencies promise to turn the EU into a parody of itself, like Asean, with only one robust democracy in Indonesia. The French elections have bought the Union five years in which to fix its economic problems and rediscover its moral compass. That is the importance of Emmanuel Macron.


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