The Platform

French President Emmanuel Macron.

Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen, his right-wing challenger, winning 58.5 percent of the national vote to secure a second term.

It is a huge political accomplishment for Macron, 44, who ran for president for the first time in 2017, founded a new political party, En Marche!, and sought to broaden the liberal-pragmatic-centrist space at a time when Europe is becoming increasingly polarised.

Only two of his predecessors, François Mitterrand in 1988 and Jacques Chirac in 2002, have won second terms, and both had been in politics for decades.

Macron, who was born in 1977, graduated from École Nationale d’Administration in 2004, an extremely competitive school that has educated the bulk of French political leaders, civil servants, judges, and members of the business class. He left government in 2008 to work as an investment banker for four years before returning in 2012 to President François Hollande’s office. He joined the government as Economy and Industry Minister in 2014, only to resign two years later to pursue a political career.

Macron was correct in his political instincts. Following the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election, political populism was on the rise, and Europe was moving to the right. Macron offered a centrist political option.

The EU’s 28 members were a diverse group, the product of hurried growth in the 1990s. The concept of a variable-geometry Europe, which was suggested as a compromise to accommodate diversity, masked political fragmentation, with some EU members proudly proclaiming themselves to be “illiberal democracies.”

According to Macron, Europe had placed too much reliance on the United States for its defence and needed to reclaim control of its destiny, the European project. Following NATO’s expansion from 14 to 28 countries in 1991, there were significant disagreements between ‘new Europe’ and ‘old Europe,’ resulting in factions within the alliance.

The difficulties of establishing a common currency among 19 countries with varying levels of development and governance frameworks was underscored by the financial crisis of 2008 and the Eurozone crisis. This caused disenchantment with globalization. In Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and even the Nordic countries, right-wing parties were gaining support. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s right-wing Front National had been renamed National Rally by his daughter, Marine Le Pen, and its new image was luring the disillusioned. The left had begun to divide in the 1990s, and now the right was following suit.

Macron used this to his advantage in 2017, portraying himself as a pragmatic moderate who was dedicated to the EU and the euro, pro-globalization, and business-friendly but progressive on social issues. He delivered a message of hope, reinvigorating French optimism based on technology, education, and creativity. It was a stratospheric climb, and he won with a resounding 66 percent of the vote.

While he successfully redefined the centre, the opposition, on both the right and left, was pushed to the extremes. In 2018, the “gilets jaunes” protests were spontaneous and not organised by any political party. It was a perplexing protest in that it regarded the capitalist state as a villain but desired a larger, more benevolent state as its saviour to provide more services and benefits. Macron’s conduct, on the other hand, demonstrated a lack of empathy and cemented his image as a technocratic, pro-rich, aloof president.

Disenchantment grew, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left, and Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour on the right, successfully exploited it.

French elections are held in two stages. A run-off between the top two candidates occurs unless a victorious candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. Macron claimed the lead with 27.8 percent of the vote in the first round, while Le Pen and Mélenchon were close behind with 23.1 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively. Candidates on the far right and far left received 58 percent of the vote for the first time. Candidates from the traditional mainstream parties were defeated. Valérie Pécresse, a member of Chirac’s team who later served as Higher Education Minister in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, received 4.8 percent of the vote, while Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris since 2014, was reduced to 1.7 percent.

It was a wake-up call for Macron, who had avoided campaigning. The run-off round eventually turned into a referendum, with people deciding who they loathed the most. Abstention rates of 28 percent, the highest since 1969, demonstrate people’s dissatisfaction with the options available.

Instead of adopting a triumphant tone, Macron chose a conciliatory tone in his victory address, promising to be a president for all and thanking those who assisted in defeating Le Pen. The latter was a recognition of the left vote; 41 percent of Mélenchon voters held their noses and voted for Macron just to keep Le Pen from winning.

Macron faces several obstacles in his second term. His party gained 314 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly in 2017, but both Mélenchon and Le Pen are calling the Assembly elections in mid-June a “third round.” If Macron loses control of the Assembly, he may be forced into an uneasy alliance with the opposition, limiting his policy options. Both of his predecessors, Mitterand and Chirac, met this fate in their second terms. Macron is well aware that French voters are fickle; he thus needs a swift and convincing image makeover.

Abhishek Kumar is a student of law at National Law University, Lucknow, India with an interest in public policy and Human Rights. He is an avid reader, Trekkie and cinephile.