Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts President Macron’s France: Between Internal Turmoil and External Crossroads
President Macron’s France: Between Internal Turmoil and External Crossroads

President Macron’s France: Between Internal Turmoil and External Crossroads

  • Hajnalka Vincze
  • May 10, 2017
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

(Source: Lorie Shaull)

“One only comes out of ambiguity to their own detriment,” this maxim often repeated by former President François Mitterrand sounds like a premonitory warning in the aftermath of Emmanuel Macron’s election in France. Indeed, for the new president whose figure of speech, “but at the same time,” has practically become his trademark during the campaign, the inevitable clarifications are likely to entail hurdles. In the economic and social policy field, Macron’s “right and left” positioning enabled him to capture a wide audience, but at the cost of sometimes contradictory statements that might prove to be difficult to reconcile between two very different camps. In foreign policy, who Macron appoints to key position should lift part of the mystery as to the actual preferences of the new president. While claiming to want to perpetuate the voluntarist Gaullo-Mitterrandian tradition, Emmanuel Macron has so far given no indication that he would break with the policy carried out over the past ten years, a policy that resulted precisely in the noticeable vanishing of what used to be France’s traditional “singularity.”

In Domestic Politics, the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Rounds Begin

All the political-institutional architecture of the Fifth Republic is based on the election of the president by direct universal suffrage in a two-round majority vote. This system is intended to provide the occupant of the Élysée Palace, often referred to as the “presidential monarch,” with “democratic legitimacy in conformity with the extent of its powers.” Except that in the particular circumstances of the 2017 election—which took place against the backdrop of a reconfiguration of the entire political landscape—Emmanuel Macron ends up, despite coming on top in the first round and collecting 66% in the second one, with a double legitimacy deficit. In fact, he was voted for both times as a candidate by default. It is customary to say in France that the first round is about choosing a candidate, and the second is about eliminating one. However, this time, as the winner of the first round, Macron got his 24% not as a first choice, but from the massive influx of disappointed voters from the two big parties on the right and the left. These voters, frustrated with their respective primaries that resulted in fringe candidates (from the left-of-the-left in the Socialist Party, and from the so-called hard-right among the conservatives) opted to vote for centrist Emmanuel Macron and his movement En Marche due to a lack of a better alternative. In the second round, although the so-called Republican Front (the teaming up of all political forces to block the far-right National Front candidate) was not as united and effective as the last time, almost half of those who voted for Emmanuel Macron still said they were doing so not by conviction but because they wanted to “obstruct the extreme right.” This does not detract from his extraordinary political performance and does not prejudge his ability to convince and assemble as president. But it is important to keep in mind this initial legitimacy deficit in order to fully grasp the upcoming political developments during his presidency.

Élysée Palace (Source: Remi Mathis/WikiMedia Commons)

In the midst of the great upheaval that is taking place all over the political landscape, two parallel trends are already clear. On the one hand, the  two big traditional parties had their deeply set internal contradictions showcased during the campaign. On the other hand, another defining fracture line, in addition to the traditional left-right divide, which separates the self-perceived winners and losers of globalization, both in socio-economic and cultural terms, appeared quite noticeably. This new major divide is also reflected on the map, in the opposition between big cities (in Paris, Marine Le Pen did not even reach 5% in the first round), and peri-urban and rural regions (despite their respective 24% and 21% Emmanuel Macron came in first only in about 7,000 communes as opposed to some 18,000 for Marine Le Pen). The phenomenon has been described in detail in the much-talked-about book of geographer Christophe Guilluy, Peripheral France. The author estimates that 60% of the French population lives in these forgotten territories. He does not hesitate to speak of a genuine “class vote” in this regard. There is no doubt that, in an effort to ease tensions, President Macron will try, as he did in his victory speech, to “talk to the other France.” Except that his planned first measures, in particular, the reform of the work law (the first attenuated version of which mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in a series of demonstrations during the spring of 2016) forecast a very probable “social third round.”

In addition, no matter how comfortably he might have been elected, the new president needs a majority in the National Assembly to carry out his program. As a general rule, whenever the legislative elections closely follow the presidential vote, “the French people’s coherence” tends to ensure a very large majority to the newly elected Head of State. However, given the ongoing re-composition of the political landscape, although such an automatism is a possibility, it cannot be taken for granted in the upcoming elections on 11 and 18 June. If En Marche fails to achieve an absolute majority (at least 289 seats out of 577), several scenarios become possible. They have in common the considerable narrowing of the president’s margin of maneuver, including, in the event of cohabitation with a Prime Minister from the opposition, a possible political paralysis. The French now face a grim choice: either they risk undermining the institutions of the Fifth Republic, articulated around the idea of ​​a powerful and united executive, or they give these wide-ranging powers to a president who barely represents one quarter of French voters and whose proposals on fundamental issues such as sovereignty, economics, and Europe are opposite of the expectations clearly expressed by half of the electorate.

In Foreign Policy, the Fundamental Choice Has Not Yet Been Made

Beyond the rather evasive slogan that his foreign policy will be guided by the vision of “France as an independent, humanist and European power,” Emmanuel Macron also said that he wanted his foreign policy actions to be based on the Gaullo-Mitterrandian heritage. Indeed, two eminent representatives of this tradition, former Foreign Ministers Dominique de Villepin and Hubert Védrine, are among those who give him advice. Except that the majority of his close entourage belong to a different school of thought, which has had, over the past ten years, the upper hand in the Élysée and the Quai d’Orsay. As a reminder, the essence of the Gaullo-Mitterrandian tradition is deceptively simple: in world affairs, France must be able to think and act by itself; in other words, it has to have its own policy. And it has to be uncompromising in pursuing it. As General de Gaulle’s former ambassador remembers, “one day the president told me during a difficult negotiation: ‘France being France, you know what you have to do.’ The doubt was over! If General de Gaulle told you this, there was no question of wavering!”

According to Hubert Védrine, the head of French diplomacy under President Chirac, then-author of two landmark reports, one for President Sarkozy and another one for President Hollande, two separate schools of thought have been joining forces in recent years against the traditional postulate that France needs to have an independent and original voice. The first aims to dilute it in Europe, and the second to align it with the United States. They often act in concert under the habit of “Occidentalism.” As H. Védrine notes, everything is a question of dosage: “Of course, all French foreign policy includes a very important European component, an Atlantic component, and a specific national dimension. But the policy outcome will not at all be the same depending on the respective proportions of these three dimensions, and on the priority given to either of them over the other two.” Under Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande, French foreign policy was set on a “normalization” path, meaning that the specific national component has often been relegated in favor of a Euro-Occidentalist line, as evidenced by the return to NATO’s integrated military command or France’s alignment on U.S. policies in the Ukrainian and Syrian crises. An open letter from a group of diplomats issued a warning as early as in 2011 saying that “The voice of France has disappeared in the world.” Another appeal, in the form of a short book signed in 2016 by another group of high-ranking former diplomats, begins with a similar observation: “France seems to have lost the independence and the intelligence of the situations that used to give it an original role.” Bear in mind that most of the personalities close to the En Marche leader have been involved, in different positions, in this policy of gradual vanishing, but also take into account his own declared intent to return to the tradition embodied by the General de Gaulle and François Mitterrand—it would be premature, before the first appointments, to draw conclusions in either direction.

In regard to relations with the United States and NATO, Emmanuel Macron has already given some—sometimes ambiguous—hints on his future policy. During the first televised debate between candidates, he spontaneously praised the “centuries-long history” of friendship between France and the United States which “together built peace in the world.” This praise did not prevent him from insisting in his defense policy discourse on the unpredictability of current American policy, saying that it “challenges some of our reference points.” On the highly sensitive subject of armaments, he even went so far as to formulate the wish to “limit our dependence on third countries, in particular those who, like the United States, do not hesitate to make use of their exported military material as a means of pressure.” Regarding the Atlantic Alliance, Emmanuel Macron’s platform notes at the outset that “France has no interest in calling into question its place in the integrated military command.” However, it also makes clear that France “will not support further enlargements of the Alliance” outside the Balkans. Paris will also make sure to “limit NATO’s interventions outside the Alliance’s geographical area to cases where France’s interests are directly at stake.” The En Marche leader is open to the Alliance playing a role “against threats of Jihadist inspiration on the Southern flank, as well as against the cyber threat.” However, he also says that “Our security cannot be based solely on NATO” and calls on Europeans to better take responsibility for their own defense. Finally, referring to Russia, he points out that “NATO is a defensive alliance,” whose role is not to “provoke those who are only waiting for pretexts to be more aggressive than they are already.”

In Europe, a One-Time Window of Opportunity

The results of the first round revealed the same geographical-sociological divide, which until now, only characterized the two referendums on Europe (in 1992 on Maastricht and in 2005 on the EU Constitution). What is more, ten out of the eleven candidates (the one exception being Emmanuel Macron) had voted no at one, the other, or on both of those referendums. This twofold observation entails a dual lesson. Under the combined effect of the economic crisis, mass immigration, and terrorism, the French seem now more than ever conscious of the EU’s decisive influence on national policy—and they are far from being unanimously happy about it. The almost 50% score obtained by candidates calling for a radical break with the European Union in its current form shows a profound malaise and the urgency of a complete reorientation. Nevertheless, Emmanuel Macron’s stance is, here again, anything but clear yet. During the campaign, he either limited himself to sweeping statements such as “we need Europe,” it is a “tool of sovereignty,” and a “guarantee of peace,” or proceeded to enumerate the same policy paths that successive French governments have been advocating for decades. These past policies never had a chance to succeed in the face of the reluctance or even outright hostility of the rest of Member States.

When it comes to a “Europe that protects” from the ill effects of globalization (with the help of ​​a Buy European Act and the control of foreign investment), or to an “economic governance of the euro area” (which would imply tax and social harmonization, as well as financial solidarity), or to the revitalization of European defense (with fully-fledged strategic autonomy as the stated goal), Emmanuel Macron’s proposals are nothing new. They are like so many sea serpents that emerge at each election, but immediately smash against the wall of refusal opposed by the other Member States and the Commission. However, France under President Macron will have three brand new master cards. On the one hand, the prospect of Brexit and President Trump’s positions free up an unprecedented amount of room for maneuver for a policy that might be less exclusively market-focused in trade and economics and more openly autonomy-driven in the international and defense realms. Moreover, the specter of a Le Pen (or Mélenchon) Presidency combined with Frexit, which would come almost automatically within five years unless French voters’ aspirations are duly met, constitutes for President Macron a non-negligible leverage. It remains to be seen, however, if and how he is willing and able to make use of these important advantages.

Macron and “France”

Elected in the second round with 66% of the votes and confident of his undeniable personal and political talents, Emmanuel Macron will nevertheless have to be attentive to the inherent fragilities of his presidency, which go far beyond the immediate challenges mentioned above. Among his predecessors, he is most often compared to President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, another young, brilliant, centrist, pro-European, modernist former Minister of the Economy. The very same Giscard who was portrayed by General de Gaulle as “a beautiful insect whose antennae were cut,” a description to which Georges Pompidou added, “What is problematic about Giscard is that he thinks himself more intelligent than France.”

In this France, Emmanuel Macron is now elected to preside. The rejection of neoliberalism and the attachment to national sovereignty are not only shared by a majority, as shown in the results of the first round, but they are widely spread all over the political spectrum and deeply rooted in public opinion. France is a country where even right-wing leaders pay tribute to the early 20th century Marxist-Socialist leader Jean Jaurès and where General de Gaulle’s policy of national independence is a mandatory reference, including on the far left. In this context, the challenge for the new president will be to pursue simultaneously his quest for “openness” and “modernity,” while still taking sufficiently into account these constant and constitutive elements of French collective identity.