The resounding election victory for Emmanuel Macron as French president – the youngest leader of France since Napoleon Bonaparte – has been greeted with relief and enthusiasm across Europe. He defeated Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National with more than 66 per cent of the vote, on a passionately pro-European platform, promising radical economic reform in France and deeper integration in the European Union.
The German government said his poll success was ‘a victory for a strong and united Europe.’ The reaction in London was rather more cautious: ‘France is one of our closest allies and we look forward to working with the new president on a wide range of shared priorities.’
For EU leaders, a victory for Le Pen would have endangered the survival of their entire project. She campaigned to leave the euro, and to hold a referendum in France on remaining a member of the EU. For the UK government, however, the key question is how the accession of President Macron will affect the narrower question of negotiations for Brexit and future UK-EU relations.
Some of the most extreme Brexiters wanted the Front National to win, believing this would strengthen their argument that the EU was a flawed project and encourage other member states to leave. For Downing Street, however, a hard-line nationalist French government headed by Le Pen would have been a dangerous and unpredictable negotiating partner.
Macron’s victory is a mixed blessing for Theresa May. On the one hand he is a middle-of-the-road politician whose economic and security priorities for France are close to those of the UK. He wants labour market reforms, and good co-operation on security and intelligence. His leading advisers are well-known in London. But his strong European agenda means two things: his top priority is to preserve EU unity and promote closer integration, while the Brexit process comes much lower down the list.
Indeed, Brexit figured little in Macron’s election campaign, except as an illustration of what France should not do: to quit the EU. On that he was totally opposed to Le Pen. But he did use strong language to dismiss the UK decision to leave as ‘a serious mistake’ and ‘a crime’. He warned that the UK was opting for ‘servitude’ to the US, and described himself as a ‘hard Brexiter’.
Those words are already being toned down by his team. Jean Pisani-Ferry, a key economic adviser, rejected any suggestion that Macron would seek to ‘punish’ the UK for seeking to leave the EU. He told the BBC: ‘There is a mutual interest in preserving prosperity. The security and defence relationship is also extremely important. We have to keep all that. At the same time, we have divergent interests on some aspects of the negotiations.’
But Macron’s immediate agenda is dominated by the need to win a parliamentary majority in the June legislative elections, and bridge the deep political divide in France, while introducing radical and potentially unpopular economic reforms. He has also promised strong French leadership in Europe. His highest European priority will be to revive the traditional Franco-German partnership, which has languished during the presidency of François Hollande. His first foreign visit is expected to be to Berlin.
During the campaign he spelt out the need for EU reforms, above all to strengthen the eurozone and revive its economy. On that score he needs to persuade Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble to ease their demands for rigid budget discipline and tough austerity. It is Franco-German divide that his predecessors have sought and failed to bridge. But he believes the answer lies in more EU co-operation, not less.
‘He believes … that Europe provides the answers to the problems we are facing. He would not implicitly agree to dismantling the EU. He is very keen on building more integration,’ says Pisani-Ferry.
Merkel and Macron are likely to agree on one important aspect of the Brexit negotiations: that there should be no ‘cherry-picking’ by the UK at the expense of the integrity of the EU single market. That is likely to frustrate the tactics of the UK government. They are also in strong agreement on the importance of preserving the rules-based EU order, enshrined in treaties, which they see as the corner-stone of EU economic and political stability.
Macron’s ability to deliver strong leadership in France and in Europe will depend on his ability to transform his electoral success into a strong and stable government. His En Marche! movement is very new and politically inexperienced. He will face a strong challenge from the centre-right Républicains in June, determined to make up for the humiliation of their candidate François Fillon in the first round of the presidential poll.
Then he must embark on his reform programme as soon as possible. Only then will he will be able to switch his attention to the problems of Europe and Brexit.
Quentin Peel, Associate Fellow, Europe Programme. Georgina Wright, Research Assistant and Coordinator, Europe Programme