From French Resilience to a Re-Foundation of Europe?

From French Resilience to a Re-Foundation of Europe?

Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping victory on May 7 was the result of two main factors. The first is France’s underestimated resilience in the face of a host of economic, international, political, and societal challenges. The second factor has been the French people’s attachment to the European Union, which has been resoundingly confirmed.

The France of François Hollande has faced enormous challenges, more than any time since the end of the Fourth Republic some six decades ago. The French economy has been mired in slow growth, high unemployment, and deficits; the military has been overstretched in interventions, the political system has seen two consecutive single-term presidencies and the weakening of its two major parties, and society has been confronted with a deadly series of terrorist attacks.

And yet the country has held fast. Paris has pursued an activist, if not interventionist foreign and defense policy, especially in Africa and the Middle East, playing second fiddle only to the United States. Hollande, like Nicolas Sarkozy before him, has been able to rely on the strong decision-making power vested in the president under the Fifth Republic. The economy, after undergoing a difficult adjustment, is picking up again, with the IMF forecasting French growth on par with Germany’s in 2018. Last but not least, French society has refrained from an overblown reaction to the challenge of homegrown terrorism, with hate crimes in 2016 diminishing 40 percent from the previous year. The bottom line is that the country is far from the basket case depicted by many both in France and abroad (with particularly poor reporting among Anglophone media), anticipating almost mechanically the possible election of Marine Le Pen — and the fall of the French “domino” after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

Second, regarding Europe, it is true that ever since the French “non” to the 2005 EU constitutional treaty — and in fact ever since the very slim “oui” in the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty — many French people have found it hard to come to terms with evolutions that have moved the European project in directions they are not comfortable with. Since the 2008 financial crisis, many have been dismayed by the country’s apparent marginalization and Germany’s increasingly dominant role in Europe.

Still, last Sunday’s vote was also a massive rejection of the adventurous course of action advocated by Le Pen, including a possible exit from the eurozone, if not from the Union. Even if Le Pen did her best to fudge the issue, the possibility of a “Frexit” today is anathema for the vast majority of the French. Interestingly, the 66-34 result of the election closely matches the support and opposition to the euro/EU as measured in polls over the last few months — around 65-35. To the extent the presidential election was an implicit referendum on France remaining in the EU, this time the “oui” prevailed overwhelmingly.

President-elect Macron now faces two main challenges. The first is to carry out important internal reforms, economic in particular (beginning with labor market), while giving credence to his stated goal of restoring the country’s lost faith in itself. However counterintuitive such a statement, this challenge may prove less daunting than usually thought. For all the negative coverage he received, Hollande created the conditions for an economic recovery which Macron will now profit from. And Macron’s victory, based on his understanding of the country’s capacity to move from resilience to renewal, is likely to have a transformative effect in and of itself.

Macron’s second challenge will, of course, be European in nature. Although his appearance on Sunday night at the Louvre was staged to the sound of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” signaling his resolute willingness to defend the European project, the president-elect is well aware that the EU needs a major fix, particularly when it comes to the economic management and the currently unsustainable economic model of the eurozone. Five years ago, Hollande called for a “re-orientation” of Europe and a renegotiation of the “Fiscal Compact,” only to see this request shelved in the weeks following his election.

This time around, things are different. It has now become clear that saving the eurozone will indeed include moving in the direction of a Europe of “transfers.” Rather than procrastinating at home, Macron is willing to push through reforms in order to give credibility to his European ambition, which he has called no less than a “re-foundation” of the European project. The onus will clearly be on Germany, which is itself engaged in a major election campaign. Will German leaders understand that Macron’s election, though a challenge to eurozone orthodoxy, was the best possible outcome for Berlin — and is perhaps also the last chance to fix Europe? This is the message from a resurgent France.

This article was originally published on May 11, 2017 as part of the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Take Series.