If elected president, Emmanuel Macron would change the narrative on Europe, say Giles Merritt and Shada Islam. The centrist candidate would not only breathe new life into the Franco-German 'locomotive' but offer a more hopeful and upbeat message for the future.
The European Union's fortunes look to be on the rise. When Emmanuel Macron topped the poll in the first round of France's presidential election - putting him on course for the Elysée Palace in the final round on 7 May - there emerged a single clear message from what political analysts had been describing as an unprecedented muddle.
The message is that this French election joins at least three others this year as more a European than a domestic election. The snap 8 June election called last week by British Prime Minister Theresa May is all about Brexit. The mid-March general election in the Netherlands marked a significant defeat for Eurosceptic Geert Wilders. September's German elections will determine Berlin's future positions on many key EU questions.
But the outcome of the French election is unquestionably the most vital. The country's left-right political tussle is being eclipsed by starkly different positions on the EU's future.
All around Europe there have been fears that if the National Front's Marine Le Pen were to gain the presidency it would spell the end for the EU in its present form. Her battle cry has been withdrawal from the eurozone and a 'Frexit' referendum on quitting the EU.
These threats alone guarantee Macron the support of many voters other than rabid Eurosceptics; his platform is encouragingly Europhile. He wants eurozone reform in the shape of a common budget under a eurozone 'finance minister', and he also proposes 'democratic conventions' to identify EU reform priorities.
Macron’s pro-European stance is important for revitalising the European Union
Whether Macron can reconcile his pro-market reforms to boost France's competitiveness with his stance on supportive social policies remains to be seen. The unpopularity of the current President, François Hollande, stems in large measure from attempting just that.
But if elected president, Emmanuel Macron's most significant achievement would be to breathe new life into the Franco-German 'locomotive'. The Paris-Berlin axis that had driven European unity forward for many years lost momentum when French support waned, and now it looks set for revival.
Macron’s pro-European stance is important for revitalising the EU. Also significant for the future of Europe is Macron’s refreshing and counter-intuitive no-holds-barred defence of liberal democratic values.
Certainly, Le Pen’s performance in the first round is proof of the continuing appeal of populist and nativist politicians who can win over disaffected anti-globalisation Europeans with simplistic (and misleading) messages. Her party is not going to go away.
And let’s not overlook the frustrations of those who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s mix of social reform, higher public spending and hostility to the EU.
But with Macron eschewing nostalgic nationalism in favour of hope and openness, France has sent an important message to those who thought populism and bigotry provided the only road to electoral success.
Not all Europeans want to turn back the clock. Many have the confidence and the courage to make globalisation work for them. Many believe in an open and progressive Europe. Many want hope. And most are fed up with traditional political parties and their time-honoured left-right divide, especially on economic issues.
Not all Europeans want to turn back the clock - many have the confidence and the courage to make globalisation work for them
There are other lessons to be learned by European politicians, especially ahead of British and German elections and for those preparing for the European Parliament polls in 2019.
Macron stands in stark contrast to the divisive ‘us and them’ rhetoric from US President Donald Trump and the hard-hitting anti-immigration stance taken by May and those pushing for a hard Brexit. Like Dutch GreenLeft leader Jesse Klaver and Austria’s Alexander Van der Bellen, Macron has stayed on message with his views on tolerance, inclusion and ending discrimination.
Significantly, unlike May and Dutch Premier Mark Rutte, who have embraced aspects of the tough anti–immigrant agenda espoused by populists, Macron stayed true to his agenda of an open France, even in the face of public outrage at the tragic terrorist attack just days before the elections.
Macron campaigned energetically for the votes of France’s disaffected citizens of immigrant descent, voicing anger at their marginalisation, insisting they were part of France’s future and saying he favoured “positive discrimination” to end decades of neglect.
His campaign was refreshingly free of anti-Muslim diatribes. Macron has told voters security will “not be better served by closing national borders,” and insisted even as Le Pen lashed out against Islam that “No religion is a problem in France today. We have a duty to let everybody practice their religion with dignity.”
On 7 May, France once again faces a historical choice. It can opt to look inwards, leave the EU, and embrace policies based on hate and fear. Or French voters can really move ‘forward’ with a politician whose upbeat message will, in Macron’s own words, highlight “the new face of French hope”.
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