What Comes Next for France?
Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election averted a crisis for the European Union. Had she prevailed in Sunday’s vote, Marine Le Pen could have helped set the bloc’s demise in motion, even if her most radical proposals, such as holding a referendum on France’s eurozone membership, would have been difficult to implement. But though France’s election marked another defeat for Euroskeptic forces, the country’s political challenges — and, by extension, those of the European Union — are far from over. The next French president will have several important domestic and foreign policy issues to manage, chief among them the country’s crucial alliance with Germany.
Le Pen’s performance in the election suggests that although Euroskepticism is strong in France, the prospect of leaving the bloc still frightens more voters in the country than it attracts. The former National Front leader tried to appeal at once to voters eager to leave the eurozone and to those who feared the economic consequences of withdrawing from the currency area. This inconsistency is partly to blame for her defeat. Nevertheless, the fact that the National Front secured 34 percent of the vote on Sunday — at a time when the Five Star Movement is polling above 30 percent in Italy — means the economic and financial risks associated with Euroskepticism will linger in the eurozone. And if the bloc’s Mediterranean members keep experiencing high unemployment and slow economic growth, the risks will multiply.
Macron has a formidable task ahead of him. His presidency will test whether a centrist, pro-European leader can govern France and whether an inexperienced politician can perform better than the professional politicians his campaign criticized. (The job will not be left to Macron alone, however; the National Assembly and prime minister will also play a crucial role in governing the country.) The outgoing Socialist administration proved a boon for anti-establishment forces on the far-right and far-left, which together attained nearly 50 percent of the vote in the first round of the election. Disappointment with Macron’s presidency could revitalize the mainstream parties that groups such as his En Marche! and Le Pen’s National Front routed in this election. At the same time, though, it could push the country’s extremist political forces to new heights in the next vote.
Some of Macron’s proposals, especially those aimed at further liberalizing France’s economy, reducing the public sector and introducing more flexible labor laws, will meet with resistance from some parts of French society, including unions and student groups. If En Marche! fails to win a majority in the National Assembly in the country’s legislative elections next month, the president will have an even harder time enacting domestic reform. His predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande found it difficult to introduce economic reforms even with control of the legislature because of opposition, not only from the public but also from their own parties at times.
Preserving France’s alliance with Germany, which underpins stability and peace in Europe, will be a priority for the next administration in Paris, and for Berlin as well. The two countries will probably be on the same page on the Brexit issue, defending the indivisibility of the European Union’s single market and ensuring that the United Kingdom doesn’t get too favorable a trade deal from the bloc. They will also work together to increase defense and security cooperation across the European Union, focusing on protecting its external borders rather than imposing internal border controls. In addition, Berlin will find an ally in Paris as it tries to uphold the European Union’s sanctions on Moscow. Though some EU members will continue to push for a rapprochement with Russia, Macron’s election will help preserve the bloc’s sanctions regime, which Le Pen promised to roll back.
Still, Germany and France will have plenty of room for disagreement, especially where the eurozone is concerned. Paris, broadly speaking, views the currency union as way to pool and distribute resources among participating countries and is willing to tolerate inflation and a cheap euro to keep Europe’s exports competitive. France also tends to take a flexible stance on deficit and debt targets, while espousing protectionism to defend vulnerable sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, against external competition. Furthermore, the country tends to support administering the euro through political means. Many of these ideas go against Germany’s interests.
Macron has already given some indication of his vision for the European Union: The president-elect, for example, has proposed creating a separate budget for the eurozone, financed by jointly issued debt, to pay for investment programs across the currency area. But as the country’s elections — slated for September — approach, German politicians will be more concerned with securing their own political futures than with accommodating Macron’s vision for the eurozone. (Hollande suggested some of the same measures that the new president-elect has proposed, with little support from Germany.) Euroskepticism is not nearly as strong in Germany as it is in France, but many German voters are wary of being too lenient with the bloc’s southern members, which they perceive as profligate. Even so, Berlin will probably be willing to compromise to keep its alliance with Paris intact. In exchange, though, it will demand that risk-sharing measures include the proper safeguards and that supranational technocrats take charge of monitoring and enforcing the rules.
The coming months will offer several opportunities for France and Germany to determine what their future relationship will look like. Though Greece’s bailout is on track, sooner or later the country’s lenders will have to discuss whether to grant Athens debt relief. Macron has suggested that France would support restructuring Greece’s debt, a policy that Germany does not explicitly oppose but one that it is trying to postpone for domestic political reasons. Should the need to hash out a new bailout program for Greece arise in the future, moreover, tensions between the eurozone’s northern and southern members could flare anew. Italy’s upcoming general elections, which will take place at some point in the next year, will once again raise questions about the country’s high debt levels and fragile banks. And once the flurry of votes has passed, the bloc will have to address the sensitive issues in the eurozone that it deferred during the election season, such as the completion of the banking union. Each of these matters will require Germany and France to work together, opening the door for more bilateral anxiety in the process.
Republished courtesy of Stratfor.com