The French presidential election seemed like a collective primal scream, the electorate emptying itself of every emotion. Like the catharsis in a classical Greek drama, everything got left on the floor. Fury? Yup, the established parties were rejected outright. Hope? That would be Emmanuel Macron on stage. Anger? That was Jean-Luc Melenchon speaking. Resentment, bitterness? Marine LePen appeared. Fear and trepidation? See Francois Fillon.
So you can pick among the shards of this collective venting to find the pieces of any narrative you want to write. In the English-speaking world, and especially the business press, the dominant story for a long time has been that Europe is on the brink of implosion, and France the country that might set it off. The Fifth Republic is certainly in a bad way. Its sluggish and hide-bound economy and heavy debt leave the government little room for manoeuvre at a time when the demands on public resources continue rising.
As for the European project, it’s sputtering. Built atop an idealised vision of an alternative model for the West from the dominant, post-war American one, European integrationists promoted a vision of a community of nations that was liberal, open and tolerant, with an approach to the world that privileged friendly nudges over big sticks. This vision has, however, been tattered for some time, Europe having sunk over the last two decades into a neoliberal mire. Growing discontent at this drift finally exploded into the open after the global financial crises, and the punishing austerity which then followed for ordinary Europeans. A wave of anger at Brussels across the continent has since propelled radicals and populists towards power in Spain and Greece, with surges in Italy, Germany and now France. In response, self-congratulatory strains of populist rhetoric have begun emerging from London and Washington, DC in the wake of the Brexit and presidential votes, respectively, saying that the spark lit initially in London in last June’s referendum has set off a fire that will consume the West and burn the globalist Establishment to the ground.
Then again, it might not. I detected early signs of populism’s peak in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, and the evidence from Europe continues to suggest that, quietly, tentatively, Europeans are pulling back from radical solutions for now. Right-wing populists disappointed in March’s Dutch elections. In France, the National Front’s hope of approaching 30% in the first-round vote and then using that as a springboard into the second, which seemed not unreasonable a few months back, was dashed two weeks ago. When in the dying hours of the campaign the Macron campaigns emails were hacked and dumped onto the Intenet, the right-wing twitterverse went into overdrive, framing this as the next battle in the assault on globalism. To no avail. And if recent poll trends are anything to go by, the globalist fight-back continues: Germany’s far-right Alternative party, which had been well into the double-digits just a few months back, has seen its popularity fall sharply since the new year.
None of this translates into a new vote of confidence in the European project, let alone globalisation. After all, nearly half of France’s voters initially supported candidates who opposed it – far more than the quarter lured by Macron’s Europhilia in the first round. And while Macron talks of renewing Europe, the challenges are immense. There probably needs to be a top-to-bottom redesign of the model if there is to be any hope of salvaging it, but it’s not clear that anyone has a mandate to do this. Still, it’s significant that for all their grumbling, the voters of France decided to give Europe another chance.
In his speech after the first round, Emmanuel Macron seemed more subdued than jubilant, as if he appreciated the weight of the task ahead of him. Declaring that he wanted to become the President of all French, he now faces a monumental task in trying to forge unity amid deep division. He must reform an economy which is fundamentally sick, help forge a model of European integration that pays heed to the rising economic and cultural anxieties of millions of his compatriots, and do it all without the support of an established party to mobilise support for change.
His first step will be to try and cobble together a majority in support of his legislative agenda in June’s parliamentary elections. His ‘En Marche’ movement is barely a year old. The energy of his supporters will probably carry his momentum forward, but he will have to rely on the institutional support of Republicans and Socialists willing to coalesce in some form around his platform. It’s not impossible, but he will have to show tremendous skill if he is to avoid the fate of recent French presidents, and running aground.
Perhaps the most that a Europhile can take from the French election is that it is a stay of execution for a project whose declarations of death have so far proved premature. The populists in Britain and the US, who imagined they had stormed the Bastille, may yet find themselves alone outside its gates.