Rather than judging European elections with American parameters that do not apply, Americans should take some comfort from the fact that the French elections have proven that France has voted against decline and the interference of terror.
The outcome of the election (correctly anticipated by the polls, unlike the November election in the U.S.), is quite clear: France and Europe are no longer what they were before. For the first time since France embraced the direct election of its president, the republican right is no longer represented at the final runoff of two candidates. The Socialist candidate had to suffer the humiliation of failing to garnish 10 percent of the vote. The right wing candidate Marine Le Pen reached the highest point of her movement but can hardly be expected to gather another 10 percent of votes that would assure a shattering success for her xenophobic, anti-European and pro-Russian National Front.
The winner of the most votes, the centrist 39 year-old Emmanuel Macron, is the new man who can save European unity. In fact, this is the conundrum of Europe. The European institutions, the common currency euro and the future itself of Europe are all at stake.
When the European Community emerged from the ruins of WWII 60 years go, it encompassed just six countries (West Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg). What came into being was a vibrant economic community with a political future.
Subsequently, it began to welcome new member countries but the political future proved to be a union too far. When the European Union reached its full extension to 28 countries (27 after the Brexit) the dream of a truly united Europe capable of asserting itself on the international scene began to fade away. The enlarged European Union accepted nations with different economies and beliefs about rights. This became immediately obvious with countries that had long suffered under Soviet domination. The illiberal construct inherited by them became quite clear in the management of the migrant crisis when all the Eastern European nations – led by the Hungarian premier Orban – were quick to erect walls and to turn down any plan of solidarity and settlement of the refugees.
And then came the explosive ascent of the French National Front and the frontal attack against the European identity. One cannot but recognize that the crisis of European institutions stems from the construction of a union fraught by the dissimilar nature of those institutions, their differing interpretations of social and civil rights and the weakness, if not total lack, of common policies.
The time has come to reset the general acceptance of a common project aimed at finding new models of integration and participation. The present day condominium of 27 governments must be replaced by a strong nucleus. If such an arrangement smacks of the acceptance of a two-speed Europe, so be it, so long as an honest effort is launched to prod the slow and unmotivated members to accept the new challenge of Europe.
Is Emmanuel Macron the man to manage such challenge? When he spoke to his supporters after the results were announced, he was the only one to wear the European flag on his lapel and he mentioned Europe five times: “we must recast Europe,” he said. And he added, significantly: “We must rebuild French hope.”
The runoff is not without perils and imponderables. It will not replicate the plebiscite (82.2 percent) that gave the presidency to Chirac in 2002. Part of the rightist electorate has already voted for Macron. More from the right will vote for him in the runoff but a lot more may abstain or vote for Le Pen. She will try hard to attract a front of protest votes that went to the leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has announced that he will hold an online consultation before throwing his support to one of the final contestants for the presidency. It is likely that on May 7 the abstentions will be a shade higher and this will complicate the task of Marine Le Pen, who is expected to get no more than 38 percent. Emmanuel Macron is the man to beat. He has already accomplished a miracle. The French elections that were expected to mark the victory of the populists in Europe have turned out to be a high water mark for them but short of the objective that would have doomed European unity. It may just be that the May 7 vote will finally record their defeat.
American populism is a different creature from Marine Le Pen’s brand but Americans should keep in mind that the revival of European unity, without Great Britain, is in the interest of the United States. In France, Marine Le Pen is not “the candidate of the people,” as she stubbornly claims. The future of France is in Europe and it will be up to Macron to make sure that it stays that way.