Macron's victory is only beginning of uphill struggle

Like someone who has narrowly escaped a heart attack, Europe can raise a glass and give thanks for the victory of Emmanuel Macron. But the glass is less than half full and if Europe doesn't change its ways it will only have postponed the fateful day.

Timothy Garton Ash Source:
(Tanjug/AP)
(Tanjug/AP)

The next president of France will be a brilliant product of that country's elite, with a clear understanding of France's deep structural problems, some good ideas about how to tackle them, a strong policy team and a deep commitment to the European Union. When a centrist pro-European government has been formed in Berlin after the German election this autumn, there is a chance for Germany and France to lead a consolidatory reform of the EU.

Savour those drops of champagne while you can, because you've already drained the glass.

Now for the sobering triple espresso of reality. First espresso shot: more than a third of those who turned out in the second round voted for Marine Le Pen. (At this writing we don't have the final figures.) What times are these when we celebrate such a result? Thanks to France's superior electoral system and strong republican tradition, the political outcome is better than the victories of Donald Trump and Brexit, but the underlying electoral reality is in some ways worse. Trump came from the world of buccaneer capitalism, not from a long-established party of the far-right, and most of the 52% who voted for Brexit were not voting for Nigel Farage. After Le Pen's disgusting, mendacious, jeering performance in last Wednesday's television debate, no one could have any doubt who they were voting for. She makes Farage look almost reasonable.

From the country which gave us the 1789 example of violent revolution we now have the personification of today's worldwide anti-liberal counter-revolution. Le Pen is the very model of a modern national populist. She herself boasted in the television debate that she is best placed to deal with this brave new world, 'to talk about Russia with Putin, to talk about the United States with Trump, to talk about Great Britain with Theresa May'. (How sickening to see a British prime minister listed in that company.) There is every reason to believe that this wave of populist reaction against globalisation, liberalisation and Europeanisation still has a lot of pent-up anger behind it.

Second espresso shot: Macron knows what needs to be done in France but is unlikely to succeed in doing it. To those who supported Le Pen you have to add the many who abstained, including left-wing voters who described this second round as a choice between cholera and the plague. The president-elect has no established party behind him, so it is totally unclear what majority will emerge from next month's parliamentary elections. He is already being described as 'Renzi 2.0', a reference to the Italian would-be-reformist ex-premier Matteo Renzi. His super-ambitious target is to reduce public spending from 55% of GDP to just – wait for it – 52%. The obstacles to change in France are enormous, from powerful unions and a bloated public sector to farmers who make a habit of blocking roads with their tractors. If he fails to reform France, then in 2022 we may yet have a president Le Pen.

Third espresso shot: it's great that Macron also wants to reform the EU, but that's not in his gift. With Brexit negotiations already turning nasty, Britain has moved from being a major ally in European reform to a massive distraction from it. Italy, with higher public debt than France, a fragile banking sector and fractured politics, may produce the next Eurozone crisis. The underlying causes of the refugee crisis have not been addressed. Hungary and Poland are governed by anti-liberal populists. Macron's proposals for Eurozone reform – a common fiscal policy, a joint finance minister, some shared debt and completion of the banking union – will not go down well with German voters. Above all, he has promised a 'Europe that protects'.

Yes, but how?

So this is only a valuable reprieve. Everything remains to be done and Europe is still drinking in the last chance saloon.

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, where he leads the freespeechdebate.com project, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected
World
. At the end of the month he will receive this year's International Charlemagne Prize

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