KC Singh | Big sigh of relief for Europe: Will India find its own Macron?
President Macron won by a fairly comfortable margin of 58.2% against 41.8% for Mrs Le Pen
Last Sunday’s French presidential elections had more than normal significance for many reasons. As part of the two-step system, the second round between the two top candidates pitted far-right populist Marine Le Pen against incumbent President Emmanuel Macron. The election took place against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
President Macron won by a fairly comfortable margin of 58.2% to Ms Le Pen’s 41.8%, but that was smaller than when he first won the presidency in 2017. is the first time in two decades in France that a President has been re-elected. Since Charles de Gaulle created the Fifth Republic, only two other presidents have been elected for several terms: the socialist François Mitterrand in 1988 and the Gaullist Jacques Chirac in 2002.
However, the fact that Ms Le Pen garnered 13.3 million votes cannot be ignored by the winner, seen as lacking in empathy and seen as a technocratic and distant figure. France remains deeply divided and in need of healing. An estimated 70% of wealthy people voted for Mr Macron, while 65% of the poor went with Ms Le Pen. More importantly, around 70% of 18-24 year olds voted for leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came third in the first round and was eliminated.
The whole of Europe seemed to breathe a sigh of relief after President Macron’s victory, as a victory for Le Pen would have been a setback for multiple reasons. Ms Le Pen is known for her fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin and for her skepticism of the European Union and NATO. His victory could have dealt a mortal blow to the idea of Europe, already seriously damaged by Brexit, after the decision of the British to leave the EU.
US President Joe Biden, in his congratulatory message to Mr Macron, pinpointed the other important factor. He said Mr Macron’s victory will help “defend democracy”. Viktor Orban’s previous victory as president of Hungary had raised concerns in Europe that populists were grabbing more space in the EU. Mr. Orban said after his victory: “The whole world saw tonight in Budapest that Christian-democratic politics, conservative civic politics and patriotic politics won. We tell Europe that this is not in the past. It’s the future.
Coincidentally, in Slovenia a populist Prime Minister Janez Jensa was also defeated by an alliance committed to liberal democracy.
From a foreign policy perspective, Ms Le Pen as President would have sown disunity in NATO’s collective position by strongly opposing Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Ms. Le Pen has always been an unconditional fan of President Putin.
Unsurprisingly, a Hungarian bank lent money to Ms Le Pen’s party for the French elections. Populists were holding hands to extend their control over more and more EU nations. France holds the presidency of the EU until the end of June. Mr Macron is expected to steer the EU towards an oil embargo on Russia.
Mr Macron’s personality and style invited analysis in view of the election. The Economist magazine summed it up as follows: “He is solitary, he decides for himself”. This approach covers politics, diplomacy, appointments, etc. It may make Mr Macron appear like a distant emperor, but it helps him deliver on his promises in his election manifesto. He could act, sometimes unsuccessfully, to loosen the labor market, reduce taxes, end railroad workers’ retirement privileges, and encourage investment. He also sometimes managed to challenge the conventional approach. It reopened schools two months after the Covid outbreak. He imposed a “Covid Pass” which most people thought would not work, but saw vaccination rates surpass levels in other EU countries.
So what does the second Macron presidency mean beyond Europe? Its basic vision will be the same, encompassing multilateralism, the rule of law, NATO and a commitment to European strategic autonomy. The latter can be disputed as most European nations are happy that the United States is involved in European security after the war in Ukraine. Since the days of Indira Gandhi, India has felt comfortable dealing with France because of its position half in and half out of the European alliance system. When India carried out its nuclear tests in May 1998, the French foreign minister was in India. France protested the least of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. That is why, besides Russia, for major defense platforms like air force planes, India has used France to reduce dependence on a single nation. India will be more comfortable with a strategically independent France, even within Europe.
Mr Macron may now try to be more collegial in the management of France, but by temperament he is a technocratic doer. On the environment, he will push harder because not only does he believe in it, but he must also appeal to young voters on the left and the Greens. His diplomacy often leaves his EU partners scratching their heads. He kept a channel open for Mr. Putin and could try again to restore peace.
India can be reassured that a pair of well-known hands are at the Elysee Palace to keep Indo-French relations on an equal footing. France is an important source of technologies in the defence, aerospace and civil nuclear sectors.
Mr. Macron’s centrist positioning holds lessons for India. Since 2015, 245 people have died in Islamist terrorist attacks, some carried out brutally in public. He still hasn’t let the far right take over French politics. Yes, Ms Le Pen has increased her percentage of votes, but countering a populist leader who uses a mixture of bigotry and xenophobia is not easy. Mr. Macron’s personality-based, highly centralized and promise-driven politics, neither left nor right, can be compared to Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi party. Mr Macron also instituted school reforms, which halved class sizes and introduced school breakfasts.
Mr Macron is also considering some populist measures that relieve the common man, such as the rebate on petrol. He probably realizes the danger of governance inside a bubble. He has National Assembly elections coming up in June. If the opposition takes control, it will be more difficult to implement its program. France was angry but voted with its head, realizing that a Le Pen presidency would cause great disruption in times of war and pandemic, which Mr Macron handled well. Punjab voted with its heart and may still regret it. Meanwhile, India must seek out its own Macron.