Home / News / World /  Emmanuel Macron to become France’s new president, in boost to Europe

Paris: Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election in a commanding victory over the far-right Marine Le Pen that will strengthen the European Union (EU) and deal a blow to the populist wave that has roiled western democracies for the past year.

Macron, an independent centrist who has never before run for office, was forecast to take about 65% of the vote in Sunday’s election to 35% for National Front candidate Le Pen, according to projections by the country’s main pollsters released after voting ended. Le Pen conceded within minutes of the polls closing. At 39, Macron is set to become the youngest-ever elected French head of state.

A pro-European globalist, Macron must now try to unite a divided France after one of the most bitter and turbulent elections of modern times. His challenge will be to end years of high unemployment and sluggish growth, deal with the terrorist threat that has traumatized the country and, ultimately, restore faith in the political establishment.

“Macron is a new face and that’s exactly what France and Europe need: a fresh start," Andre Sapir, a senior scholar at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, said in an interview. “Macron gives Europe a huge hope."

While the victory is also a relief for markets after a campaign that saw bond yields fluctuate in tandem with Le Pen’s political fortunes, the euro was muted on its open in early Asian trading.

Leaders respond

Leaders were quick to hail Macron’s achievement, with UK Prime Minister Theresa May among the first to offer her congratulations. In a tweet, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the result was a victory for “a strong, united Europe."

“A new page opens in our long history this evening," Macron told Agence France-Presse as the result became clear. “I want it to be one of hope and confidence recovered."

The outcome will help restore some of the EU’s self-confidence after it was battered by Britain’s decision to leave the bloc last year. A committed free-trader, Macron will help act as a counterweight to the protectionist wing of Donald Trump’s White House along with Merkel, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Xi Jinping of China.

The election result is at once a blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met with Le Pen at the Kremlin in March, and a rebuff to President Trump, who said in April that Le Pen was the “strongest" candidate on borders, even if neither leader officially endorsed her.

Swept aside

“This is of huge significance for French politics," Bruno Cautres, a political scientist at the Sciences Po institute in Paris, said by phone. “The voters’ demand for political renewal has swept everything aside, politicians of the establishment have been eliminated one after the other, and the winner is someone who has never been elected before."

The election ultimately came down to a choice between two radically different visions for France that were on show last week when the candidates clashed in their only televised debate.

Having prevailed over 48-year-old Le Pen, Macron will be sworn in as soon as this week as the head of mainland Europe’s second-largest economy and its leading military power, as well as one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

It’s a remarkable achievement for Macron, who built his En Marche! movement just last year. A former investment banker and one-time economy minister in the outgoing government of Francois Hollande, he only resigned his post in August to run for the presidency, and becomes the first postwar head of state to be elected from outside the traditional party structure.

Uncharted territory

Yet his victory also propels France into uncharted political territory. His lack of an established base may curtail his ability to fulfil campaign pledges to pursue closer ties to France’s European neighbours and launch far-reaching reform of the economy. Macron has pledged to strengthen the euro, cut taxes on business and kick-start competitiveness by allowing more company flexibility and by inviting top scientists to relocate to France.

“Macron’s biggest challenge now is to win the battle for parliament," Dominique Reynie, politics professor at Sciences Po, said in an interview. “In the French system, if he doesn’t have a majority he’d have only limited power, he’d become a constitutional monarch. If he has his own majority, he’d have all the powers which the Fifth Republic grants the president."

In her concession speech, Le Pen claimed the mantle of leader of the opposition, saying that the legislative elections were looming and “I’ll be at the head of this fight."

The election brings to an end a tumultuous campaign that culminated in a hacking attack on the Macron camp on the eve of polling. Surprises littered the way to Sunday’s runoff. The incumbent decided not to seek re-election, a first for a sitting president, while former head of state Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls suffered humiliating defeats in their parties’ primaries.

Favourites came and went, above all former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who led the polls until a newspaper revealed in January that he’d hired family members for what may have been no-show jobs. Then there was the unforeseen rise of a far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who took almost 20 percent of the vote in the first round two weeks back.

Campaign hacking

The final twist—the Macron team’s announcement late Friday that they had been hacked by an unknown party—will likely reverberate into Macron’s presidency. While details are still scant, suspicion has fallen on Russia after the CIA found the Kremlin interfered in the U.S. election, a charge rejected by Trump as “ridiculous." Unlike Macron, Le Pen has called for sanctions on Russia to be lifted and coverage of her on Russia sites and media has been positive.

For her part, Le Pen will have to reflect on a campaign that highlighted the appeal of her anti-immigrant, anti-establishment rhetoric, but also its limits. The 35% she scored was about twice her tally in 2012, but still left her a long way from ultimate victory. Questions will now be asked about the direction of the party, in particular her policy to exit the euro, which changed several times during the course of the campaign and may have deterred many voters. She referred to the need for the National Front to ‘renew itself".

On foreign policy, Macron has already signalled his desire to work more closely with Merkel on bolstering the foundations of the EU as the UK prepares to leave. Putin will also be facing a united front in Merkel and Macron, who has previously complained that Russian state news agencies have tried to disrupt his campaign with fake news reports. Macron will meet Trump and Merkel at a Nato leaders’ meeting in Brussels followed by a Group of Seven summit in Sicily later this month.

Macron’s electoral challenges aren’t over. His first significant announcement will be his prime minister who will lead a caretaker government until parliamentary elections in June. They will be crucial for a president whose En Marche! movement has no experience contesting legislative elections.

While Macron’s prime minister will get to select a government, the newly elected parliament will have the power to bring it down and impose its own choice unless En Marche! becomes the largest bloc. With at least five political formations contesting all 577 seats, a hung parliament could emerge.

And while Macron prevented France from succumbing to the populist wave that led to Trump’s victory in November and Britain’s referendum decision to quit the EU, he’ll be leading a country in which about 40 percent of the population voted in the April 23 first round for candidates opposed to the international liberal trading order. About 25 percent of the electorate are predicted to have abstained in the runoff.

“Macron’s achievement is that he played the aces he was handed very well," said Rainbow Murray, reader in politics at Queen Mary, University of London. While his win is clear good news for Europe, “populism definitely hasn’t gone away. It didn’t triumph here but it came second and it is doing better all the time." Bloomberg

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