Sat, Apr 29, 2017 - Page 9 News List

France has unique presidential candidate in Emmanuel Macron

By Dominique Moisi

Relief and pride are the main emotions many French citizens are feeling after the first round of the French presidential election, in which former French economics minister Emmanuel Macron finished first.

For once, the pollsters were right: The two favored candidates — Macron and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen — advanced to the second-round runoff on May 7.

Gone is the sense of anxiety that had attended the weeks, days, and hours before the election, owing to fears that France would wake up to a second-round choice between the far-right Le Pen and the far-left Socialist Party candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Many observers saw France as economically, socially, and politically vulnerable — even more so than the UK, US or Germany — to such a choice. After the UK’s Brexit vote and US President Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, surely this was Le Pen’s window of opportunity.

Some of us, only half-jokingly, have even mused about where we would flee if Le Pen won. Between a UK that is leaving the EU and a US under Trump, there are few good options.

Fortunately, reason and hope prevailed over anger and fear, and French citizens defied those who warned that populism might triumph in the land of the French Revolution. While a Le Pen victory is technically possible, the composition of the French electorate makes it highly unlikely.

Very few of Melenchon’s leftist voters will cross over to the extreme right, and while some of the center-right candidate Francois Fillon’s supporters may now vote for Le Pen, it will not be enough to sway the election in her favor.

In other words, the French exception is alive and well. France’s contrarian electorate has demonstrated to the world — and especially to the Anglo-Saxon world — that one need not betray one’s defining values to defeat populism.

Despite a recent wave of terror attacks, the French have proved their resilience against the politics of fear. Even with Euroskepticism on the rise, the pro-European candidate, Macron, received more votes than any other.

Exceptional circumstances sometimes give rise to exceptional characters. Without the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte would have remained a junior officer in the French Royal Army.

Similarly, albeit less dramatically, if France’s two main political parties had not collapsed, the 39-year-old Macron, who was unknown to most French voters a year ago, would still be just another economic whiz kid.

Macron looks like a French former US president John F. Kennedy and he campaigned in the mode of former US president Barack Obama, but he got where he is because the Socialist Party that produced former French president Francois Mitterrand is dead, and the conservative Les Republicains are in shambles.

The Socialists, for their part, could not come up with a modern political agenda, and the Republicans failed to tap another candidate after Fillon became tainted by a scandal. As a result, France, despite its reputation for melancholy, self-doubt and pessimism, is about to elect its youngest-ever president.

At that point, however, Macron will face a whole new set of challenges, starting with legislative elections that are scheduled for June.

Will Macron end up with a governing majority in the National Assembly, or will the right present a united front and force him into the uniquely French practice of cohabitation?

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