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The Election Miracle
Can the youngest President-elect save France from division?
By Song Luzheng | NO. 20 MAY 18, 2017

Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech in front of the Louvre Museum in Paris on May 7 after winning the runoff vote of the presidential election (XINHUA) 

Only one year ago, Emmanuel Macron was not well known to the international community. At that time, he had just resigned from his post as minister of economy, industry and digital affairs in the government of President François Hollande. He left the Socialist Party last August to form a new movement, En Marche, claiming it was neither left nor right. Macron decided to run in the French presidential campaign, but few believed this young politician could make it through to the second round. Compared with other rivals he was a political novice.

However, the miracle did happen and Macron created history. He won 66.06 percent of the vote, at the age of 39, on May 7, defeating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and becoming France's youngest president.

Factors of fortune 

There is no doubt that Macron's success can be partly attributed to good luck. Center-right candidate François Fillon was once the favorite to win the French presidency, but in March he was placed under judicial investigation for abuse of public funds, which dealt a heavy blow to his presidential ambitions. The payment scandal engulfing Fillon that occurred in the presidential race may have been fortuitous in timing, but it did help Macron gather support from center-right voters.

There is another factor of fortune. National Front candidate Le Pen was the rival who Macron faced in the presidential runoff. The far-right National Front is a rising political force in France, taking a stand against globalization, free trade and immigration. Party leader Le Pen has experienced growing popularity in recent years, but she was unable to win over 50 percent of the vote in the presidential runoff. France's electoral system is designed to exclude more radical and extremist parties from winning power in the presidential election race, so if Macron had not been facing off against Le Pen in the second round he might not have won with such a large majority.

Of course, Macron's success did not come by accident; there are other factors in play. As an old saying goes, "a hero is nothing but a product of his time." As a new political party, Macron's En Marche has no institutional or historical baggage as major center-right and center-left parties do.

Both major political parties, the Socialist Party and the Republicans, had primary elections to select candidates for the presidential election. In 2012, the Socialist Party, for the first time, carried out primary elections and François Hollande won. But Hollande's presidency in the last five years has diminished the popularity of the ruling party because of his incompetent leadership. For the 2017 election, Benoit Hamon became the Socialist candidate after defeating Manuel Valls in the second round of the party primary in January.

Hamon was a member of Hollande's administration. But he left the cabinet in 2014 for what he considered Hollande's abandonment of a socialist agenda. Hamon criticized the social-liberal politics of Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls. However, Hamon did not win over the majority of left-wing voters. He only claimed around 6 percent of the vote in the election's first round. Many important figures within the Socialist Party, including Valls, chose to support Macron after Hamon won the nomination. Since many members of Hamon's own party didn't support him, the Socialist Party inevitably suffered electoral failure.

In addition, it was unlikely that the Socialist Party would have won the election even if the party had thrown its weight behind the candidate in the traditional form of internal consultation, considering the Socialists had been heavily encumbered by Hollande's poor performance.

The center-right Republican Party staked all hope on candidate Fillon, the 62-year-old liberal politician and former French Prime Minister. Fillon beat his moderate rival Alain Juppe with overwhelming support and won the conservative primary runoff on November 27, 2016. Opinion polls at that time suggested that Fillon was on course to win the presidential election.

Since the establishment of the Fifth Republic (which features a strengthened presidency) in 1958, the Socialists and the Republicans have taken turns to rule France. Other small parties have not had the chance to dominate the government and parliament. In theory, since Hollande disappointed much of the French public, the Republicans, as the biggest opposition party, should have won the presidential election. Fillon appeared confident when he saw opinion polls favoring his victory. But the payment investigation completely shattered his presidential dream. The incident also revealed the drawbacks of the party's candidate nomination.

Many may ask why the Republican Party couldn't change its candidate after Fillon was placed under the judicial investigation, and why Fillon insisted on sticking to his bid for the election. Had the Republicans switched their candidate in time, before the first round, they might have done better in the election. But there is no hypothesis for history. The party and its candidate must respect the result. If they had switched candidates, it would have meant conceding the failure of the party's primary system, which would have run the risk of delegitimizing the next candidate in the election.

Ironically, although the two candidates from the Socialist and Republican parties had their fatal problems, they were able to hold on to their nominations up until the end of the first round of the presidential election, while Macron and Le Pen made it through to the second round, without having to endure party primaries. Thus, party primaries—intended for selecting the most suitable candidate—may have hindered the main parties.

For Macron himself, there are positive factors that helped him gain popularity. He has no political stains. More importantly, Macron left the Socialist Party and drew a clear distinction from some unpopular political figures in the ruling party. Many French voters hope to see a fresh change in future government. They have become tired of the old-fashioned politicians.

However, for Macron political risks are unavoidable. He lacks a solid foundation in French politics and his party can't ensure a dominant number of seats in parliamentary elections, which could result in long-term gridlock and contradiction between his administration and the legislative body.

People celebrate in front of the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, on May 7 after Emmanuel Macron won the presidential race (XINHUA) 

The implications for China 

Chinese President Xi Jinping on May 8 congratulated Macron on his election victory and the next day President Xi held a talk with the French president-elect via telephone.

Macron had shown a cooperative stance to China before. In his book Revolution, published in November 2016, Macron praises China's economic achievement and attaches importance to the friendship between France and China. He said on page 215 that Chinese leaders never forget France was the first Western power to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China.

More importantly, Macron needs China. The primary task for his administration is to promote domestic economic growth. Currently, anti-globalization and anti-free trade sentiment is prevalent in the West. The United States has become pro-isolation and Britain is busy with its exit from the European Union. The EU faces many internal problems and the threat of further division. And, EU-Russia ties remain strained because of economic sanctions. Macron has reiterated his support for the EU and the Eurozone. Against this backdrop, China can lend France a hand in maintaining the progress of globalization and free trade, and combating climate change.

Macron is a pragmatic political leader. He is expected to focus on economic growth and cooperation with China in policymaking.

Macron faces the challenges of institutional problems and a disadvantageous international situation. His biggest task is to heal the wound of division in France.

The author is a researcher with the China Institute of Fudan University in Shanghai. 

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar 

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