Protests and a nation divided — so, what now for the future of France?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
 (AP)
(AP)

Just before 9pm on Sunday evening, the last rays of sunshine above the Trocadéro illuminated the crowd of Emmanuel Macron’s supporters, who had gathered at the foot of the Eiffel Tower to celebrate the president’s re-election with more than 58 per cent of the vote. Glowing in the twilight sunset were the young and not-so-young faces of Parisians who, in the French capital alone had given the 44-year-old Centrist candidate 85 per cent of the votes. They were happy and relieved: five more years of Macron, the successful rebuffing of his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, 53. But the moment was as beautiful as it was brief.

For France’s jubilation at having stopped the Far Right from reaching the gates of the Elysées Palace for the third time in twenty years was short-lived. Democracy has prevailed - but the hardest part is clearly yet to come. After the results came out, protests erupted throughout the French capital, as well as Lyon, Montpellier and Toulouse; each a clear sign of the disenchantment in the country at large. Chants of “Ni Marine, Ni Macron” – “neither Marine, nor Macron” rang out. One thing was clear, President Macron’s in-tray is full: he must focus urgently on mending a deeply divided France.

Macron knew this as he arrived with his wife Brigitte, 69, while the dark settled over the Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower the only light in the sky. In 2017 he walked alone onto the stage; this time, he was accompanied by his wife and dozens of children and teenagers. The message was clear, if a little naïve, he would be the President of “Nous Tous” (Us All) - just as his electoral posters presented him - rather than the Olympian figure he had been during the first year of his presidency, until the anti-government Gilets Jaunes’s violent protests shook him off his pedestal. He did however stick with Beethoven’s Ode of Joy as the soundtrack of his victory, which delivered a clear message to France’s pro-European youth: your future is in a strong France, in a strong Europe. I will make sure of this.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron (Getty Images)
Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron (Getty Images)

In his victory speech, he also acknowledged the support of voters who did not share his views but who simply wanted to stop the Far Right from gaining power. “I owe you”, he said with misty eyes. “I know that a number of French people have voted for me today, not to support my ideas but to stop the ideas of the far right.” As the left-wing daily newspaper Libération put it in the morning after edition: “Merci qui?” (“who do you say thank you to?”). Many voted for Macron as the lesser of two evils but some could not even bring themselves to do that and election turnout was lower than any presidential elections since 1969.

The French will vote all over again in June for the National Assembly. Traditionally, the French give a majority to the president they have just elected so that he can govern and deliver on the party’s manifesto. Today, his ministers have been put to work turbocharging their campaign and urging voters to back Macron. But already hard-left voters have warned that they will seek the largest possible majority with a view to preventing Macron from having his parliamentary majority. This is the dream of hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who sees himself as Macron’s next Prime Minister. However, for this to happen, Mélenchon must unite a very divided Left behind him and secure enough votes to have a majority at the National Assembly, thus forcing the President to choose a Prime Minister from its ranks.

Macron could try and diffuse some of the electorate’s discontent as early as this week. By appointing a government of “union nationale” representing all the country’s political colours, he would acknowledge what he owes those on the Right and on the Left who chose him by default. It is a move Jacques Chirac did not make in 2002 when elected with 82 per cent of the votes against Jean-Marie Le Pen and this historical mistake forever tinted the rest of his political life.

Emmanuel Macron’s re-election speech (AP)
Emmanuel Macron’s re-election speech (AP)

“Union nationale” should indeed be one of the key terms for Macron’s second mandate. France has seldom felt so fractured. There are three versions of France: the happy, optimistic and pro-European France of the educated small and high bourgeoisie who voted for Macron; there is the unhappy, anti-migrant, Eurosceptic and less-educated post-industrialised and post-rural Northern and Eastern France who voted for Le Pen; and there is the educated yet frustrated France of university cities and South of France who has embraced Far-Leftism and ecology with tribal passion.

Can Emmanuel Macron stitch France back together? It feels like a monumental task for any President, and especially for Macron who has proved such a divisive figure for the dissatisfied segment of France. His success has been insolent and he has irritated many French voters. He became President at just 39 - having only just set up his own party 18 months earlier - and behaved with extraordinary self-belief. Many found him arrogant, and his efforts to reform rankled the the notoriously change-averse French. Macron, too, lacks the warmth and maturity that so many French people crave in a President. They may secretly admire his superior mind, his boundless energy, his standing on the international scene, his dynamism, yet they can’t help feeling patronised by him. The irony is that they find his competence arrogant.

And for all the world’s woes - and for all Macron’s ambitions to resolve them - the French President must be seen to be focusing more on his country than on the rest of the world in his next term. His pro-Europeanism and delivering on green issues will not be enough to assuage his compatriots. He will need to continue to deliver on the economy by further lowering unemployment and developing apprenticeships for the young.

Police arrest a man during a protest of centrist incumbent President Emmanuel Macron's defeat of far-right rival Marine Le Pen for a second five-year term (Getty Images)
Police arrest a man during a protest of centrist incumbent President Emmanuel Macron's defeat of far-right rival Marine Le Pen for a second five-year term (Getty Images)

He will need to make France’s wealth redistribution, which at 57% of its GDP is one of the highest in the world, more efficient and more visible to the French who don’t seem to realise how generous their welfare system is. He could also looking at adapting the Republic’s institutions to the reality of French politics today by introducing, for instance, some proportionality into the electoral system. This would compensate for the deficit of democracy so often denounced by both Far Right and Far Left. But, it could conversely become a double-edge measure and introduce political instability. Is France ready?

The next five years will be challenging for Macron. For now, at least, he can rejoice at the fact that France has refused for the second time in five years to experience a populist shock to its system, unlike Brexit Britain and Trump-America.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting