By Alan Philps

After the French vote, all eyes are on Germany

May 13, 2017 - 5:50

It is no surprise that a publisher has announced that an instant biography of Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old who will be inaugurated as president of France on Sunday, will have the title The French Exception. That France is unique – in its historic contribution to world politics, culture and of course cuisine – is a well-worn theme, most forcefully expressed in the words of the poet Victor Hugo, “France, without you the world would be alone”.

Macron is exceptional not just in his youth. A year ago he was a political novice who had never been elected to any post and had no party behind him. By taking a huge gamble, and profiting from the implosion of the traditional parties of Right and Left, he defeated Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right Front National, to land the top job.

Perhaps the most exceptional thing about him is that the French vote went the opposite way to recent elections where populism in the form of Donald Trump and the preference to take Britain out of the European Union have triumphed. Macron is the anti-Trump – he defends globalization, the rights of immigrants and is passionately committed to the European project, even at a time when increasing numbers see it as a failing project. His swim against that tide is truly exceptional.

So unlikely is his triumph that the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal has suggested that France may now be a kind of plutocracy where the leading financial and industrial groups conspire with their shock troops in the media to secure victory for their candidate – a former banker – to protect their interests from the angry masses of those left behind by globalization.

The thesis is rather too simple – in circumstances where established parties collapse like punctured balloons, the winner of any election may be quite random, as shown by the Trump phenomenon. But Sansal may have a point about the power of the elites to ride the populist wave. To judge by the rise in U.S. stock markets since Trump’s victory, the first beneficiaries are those with savings, not the left behind whom he said he was representing.

Recent French presidents have generally ended their mandates having failed to address France’s problem of high employment particularly among the youth. This has caused it to lag behind Germany, its one-time partner at the helm of the European Union which is now the clear leader. If he can implement his reform program, he will indeed be truly exceptional.

As befits a member of the French elite, he has grand plans to revive the French economy while resolving the crisis of the eurozone, the 19 countries which use the European common currency, the euro. He want to complete this half-formed bloc which is riven by differences between the wealthier states of the European north and the indebted Mediterranean countries by turning it into a type of federal state, with its own finance minister.

 Two mountains to climb
There are at least two mountains to climb here. The first is that he needs to secure a majority in the French parliament next month to be able to pass his “new deal” program. He has only a few days to name candidates for his new party to stand in the 577 constituencies.

It is traditional for a new parliament to be chosen swiftly after the president takes over, on the basis that the popular wave that brought him to power will roll on into parliament.

In these fractious times, that seems unlikely, which would force Macron to expend his energies in coalition building or even fighting a hostile legislature.

The problem here is that while the atmosphere in France may be generally gloomy it is not so desperate that the masses are certain to swallow harsh economic medicine in the interests of national revival. Will older workers sacrifice their job security so that the young can get employment? That is a big ask.

In this situation Macron needs political and financial support from Germany; economic reform cannot succeed in France under the German concept of austerity and debt reduction. This is his second mountain.

The Macron camp asserts that France and Germany are in this together: if Macron fails then in five years it is quite likely that Le Pen, or her successor, will triumph and the European project – which is core to Germany’s prosperity and sense of self – will suffer a fatal blow. This is a strong argument and probably true. But five years is a long time in the world of politics.

For the moment chancellor Angela Merkel is not offering any concrete help to Macron.

The word from Berlin is that there is no “crisis in the Eurozone”. There are only some countries – including France – which have failed to adapt to the lean requirements of the 21st century as Germany has done. Wealth must be created in the eurozone before Germany can set about redistributing it.

This ignores the huge benefits that German industry has gained from being at the center of the European market. It has exploited the eurozone to sell Mercedes and Volkswagens to consumers in countries which, if they had their own currency and not the euro, would have to make do with cheaper motors.

But Merkel is running for re-election in September and is not about to renounce her role as guardian of Germanic fiscal rectitude.

The hope is that she might relent after she begins her fourth term, with an eye on her legacy as the woman who saved the European Union.

Macron therefore is likely to be on his own for at least six months. Can he keep up the momentum for that length of time before politics as usual reasserts itself? The stakes are high – he will either be the saviour of Europe, or a stopgap until the populists gain control of France.

(Source: The National)

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