France and the EU: Emmanuel Macron’s election is not a victory for Europe — yet

12 June 2017 – EastWest (Roma)

A peppy and Europhile new president at the Elysée palace is surely good news for the EU. But it is not enough to save the Union from populism and nationalism pressures of all kinds, says the editor of EastWest Magazine.

Emmanuel Macron is the new French President.The outcome has matched the expectations of all French pollsters. The threat of a presidency headed by Marine Le Pen and consequently the Front National is averted. And now all commentators and analysts will write and say that with En marche!, Macron’s movement at the helm, Europe can be rebuilt, all problems will be solved and so on and so forth. No. This is not the case. Unfortunately, Europe is by no means safe. And it won’t be at least until the traditional parties come to terms with their defeats, which have taken place in France just as they have elsewhere. Until this realisation is fully taken on board, Europe will never be safe.

Up until a few months ago, Macron could hardly have expected he would become president. When he launched En Marche! in April 2016 (a movement, not party, this much must be clear) he certainly didn’t believe he was headed for the presidential palace. Of course, he may have had some faint hope. But he hadn’t even prepared a political programme, as many of his inner circle have explained. He set about devising one together with Jean Pisani-Ferry, the founder of the Bruegel think tank, only when he came to realise he had more than an outside chance. In other words, when the polls assured him he would make it past the first round of the presidential contest. In the second round, it was going to be much easier for him to become the youngest ever French president. He first entered the world of finance – the Rotschild Bank – with the clear intent of building up a network of contacts he could exploit for his political purposes. Things generally work the other way around, but not in the case of this 40 year old from Amiens, who may be small (he’s 5 foot 7 inches, much like me) but his resolve and stalwartness are comparable to that of a giant.

The most determined youngster in France has had to walk over hot coals to make it to the presidential palace. At first he was criticized for his wife, then for his links with the financial elite, then he had to suffer Le Pen’s vitriolic attacks and finally his e-mails were hacked. When he had to attack, he did so. When he had to take rear-guard actions, he did so with aplomb. But there’s one aspect that has particularly surprised outside observers. The fact that Macron is pop. Macron, as my colleague at Bloomberg View Ferdinando Giugliano puts it, is a reverse populist. He uses slogans much like Le Pen. With the only difference that Macron’s are positive and sound, with solid fundamentals, as a financial analyst might put it. Together with his strategic advisors he came to realise that either he used this kind of communication or he had no chance of winning.

Macron is against traditional parties. He accused the Republican candidate François Fillon of nepotism. It has to be said that the French public administration has always been rife with very questionable instances, where the boundaries of what was legal and legitimate and what was not were very fuzzy. So he stood up as an alternative to the usual two horse race between Socialist and Republicans. Much along the lines of what Marine Le Pen has managed to do by modernizing the Front National so it could become more appreciable in the north. Or what Beppe Grillo and his 5 Star movement have achieved in Italy. Both of them – Le Pen and Grillo, have sought political consensus by selling the image of the knight on a white horse that turns up in the darkest hour to slay the dragon. In this case, the battle was against a many-headed dragon: unemployment, the failure of European institutions to address people’s problems, an imperfect monetary system, political corruption, financial malpractices. The list is long and could get longer if the political elites do not come to terms with reality as we suggested earlier.

Can one therefore usefully compare En Marche! to the 5 Star Movement? Technically yes, because they were both conceived in order to seek out consensus wherever it could be found. Meaning outside the traditional parties. With the intent of renewing the political system in the country in which it operates but also hoping to build something great in the long run. With one major difference. The creative destruction suggested by Macron is, at least in principle, based on competence, merit and preparation, and has little in common with the improvised destruction promoted by Grillo – who, hiding behind his slogans – does not offer a true alternative government capable of improving what’s already there. In the first case state and society evolve, in the second the decline of the country is simply accelerated.

The greatest risk for Europe is that the traditional parties still standing, albeit defeated, don’t fully realise what they must learn from the lesson imparted by Macron. Many, like Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party, have leapt onto the Macron and En Marche! bandwagon, but this is the biggest mistake they can make. Because France is not Italy and because so far in Italy no reverse populists like Macron have appeared on the horizon. Similar ways have been used to secure electoral consensus, but within the context of traditional political content, which when put out to despondent and disappointed citizens can’t count on the allure Macron has garnered in France.

This situation is not just the case in Italy but also applies to the United States. Similar dynamics can be seen at work for Donald Trump, who as a Grand Old Party outsider managed to reach the White House on the back of anti-establishment slogans and messages. If we go back in time it can hardly be denied that the same situation was witnessed in Italy when Silvio Berlusconi decided to climb into the political arena.

Political animals outside the political sphere that pitch up, destroy all that stands before them and rebuild. At times successfully, other times less so, often disastrously. Yet the dynamics governing the switches in political consensus seem to work along these lines. Will Macron manage to raise Europe out of the quagmire it’s landed itself in? No. Or more specifically, not alone. His energy and determination may be very helpful in recreating a more balanced and innovative French-German axis. But without the assistance of the other member states, all efforts will be in vain. Until nationalisms of varying natures ill hold sway, at times parading as forces wishing to protect national interests, the European dream will not come to fruition. And thus, the European Union will remain incomplete, fragile and vulnerable.

Translated from the Italian by EastWest

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