When the great lion of the European project, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, died on the eve of French President Emmanuel Macron’s landslide legislative victory over the weekend, many could not resist the apparent symbolism. It was as if one generation of European integrationists was passing the torch to the next.
Mr. Kohl, a classic pragmatist, led his country through the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification and the launch of the Euro. By the end of his tenure in 1998 he had, most notably through his partnership with French President François Mitterrand, forged a closer European union than would have been conceivable in his war-torn childhood.
Yesterday, Emmanuel Macron got the electoral mandate he needed not merely to consolidate that much-maligned union, but to actually advance it. Mr. Macron’s huge majority in legislative elections, winning six of every ten seats in the National Assembly, gives him the backing he needs to proceed with his bold plans. Moreover, the fact that most of those elected are political novices – a deliberate outcome, since Mr. Macron created a new political movement in order to renew the French political system (and lord knows it needs it) – means that his legislators should remain quite disciplined for now. Without independent power-bases or portfolios stuffed with pledges and favours, his people in parliament will fall in line.
However, that creates risks for Mr Macron. Without detailed scrutiny within his party, any unforced errors he makes could go unchecked. Just ask Theresa May about the risks of over-centralisation. Much will therefore ride on the soundness of his plans to open up the French economy. At present, it resembles a China shop with an idiosyncratic owner, odd opening hours, long vacation closures, and staff that are in no particular rush to please (since it’s not in their contract). But it has its charms, and any China Mr Macron breaks will be his to own.
Record abstention levels on Sunday also put an asterisk next to that landslide. Nearly six in ten voters chose to take in the sun rather than queue outside polling stations, underscoring just how much Macron’s agenda divides France: a substantial minority love him and look to him to save their country from its worst instincts, a third loathe him and his plans to destroy what they love about France, and the remaining third are very much in a wait-and-see mode.
Voters from working-class districts, which disproportionately support politicians from the far left and far right, like Jean-Luc Melenchon and Marine Le Pen respectively, abstained in particularly large numbers. Mr Melenchon, the leader of France Unbowed, a coalition of communist and other radical groups, thus infers that what they chose not to do at the polling station, they might yet do on the streets. This will be where Mr Macron encounters his greatest opposition. Strikes and protests have stymied French presidents trying to change the country’s hidebound system before. If the unions decided to oppose his agenda en masse, they could conceivably bring the country to a standstill, regardless his parliamentary majority.
However, lest Mr Melenchon and Madame Le Pen make too much of the low turnout, the exit polls suggest it was as much complacency as hostility which kept French voters at home in the final round of the elections. Turnout by Macron supporters fell from the first round of voting to the second, with many seeing the election outcome as secured (something about which they were not, of course, mistaken). Melenchon and LePen supporters, by contrast, having stayed at home the previous Sunday, turned out in larger numbers for fear their parties might not make it into the assembly. That surge rescued the places in parliament for France Unbowed and Mrs Le Pen’s National Front.
Thus, Mr Macron has a clear mandate, but it is not unconditional. His task is clear. He has to move very quickly on enacting his agenda, then hope his German ally Angela Merkel wins a strong mandate in Germany’s autumn elections. Thus, as the pain of his adjustment bites, as workers lose some job guarantees in order to reduce the costs of new businesses setting up, he has to keep prodding Mrs Merkel’s government to loosen Germany’s purse-strings. Most economists agree that Germany has become too prudent of late, and is living off exports to its weaker European neighbours. If Mrs Merkel is able to get her finance minister, the notoriously tight-fisted Wolfgang Schauble, to loosen spending to encourage European growth, Mr Macron might get a favourable wind in the sails of his ship.
All the while, he will need to find a way to keep his compatriots on board as the inevitable pushback to his reforms roils the streets. It will be a very tall order indeed. Happily for him, though, with the European economy on an upswing, there should be some external relief to France’s pain. And hey, he ain’t Theresa May, so things look comparatively bright for him.