The election of this country’s youngest president has been welcomed by many as it is seen as a triumph of hope over hate, globalisation over nationalism and open markets over closed economies
~By Sajeda Momin in London
In an interview in the last week of her election campaign, Marine Le Pen claimed that she had more in common with leaders like Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin who were running far-right governments in their countries and therefore, would make a better president of France than her opponent Emmanuel Macron. However, that comment and a disastrous televised debate opposite Macron in which Le Pen showed her anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-Europe fangs finally lost her the election.
French voters who were repulsed by Le Pen’s far-right, populist and nationalist propaganda preferred to choose Macron, a centrist independent, political novice leading not even a political party but what he called a movement—En Marche! (Onwards!)—started only a year ago. In one of the lowest-ever voter turnouts in French history, Macron won a resounding victory, obtaining 66 percent of the votes as opposed to Le Pen’s 34 percent. Six months short of his 40th birthday, he becomes France’s youngest leader since Napoleon Bonaparte.
The sigh of relief across Europe was palpable not so much for Macron’s win as for Le Pen’s defeat. Commentators called it a triumph of hope over hate and fear, of globalisation over nationalism and of open markets rather than closed economies. After a dreadful 2016 in which the UK chose to cut its ties with the European Union and regain its “independence”, followed by the election of a wall-building Donald Trump, it seemed that narrow, inward-looking ideologies were the flavour of the day.
France was the next big test. Le Pen had described the contest as between her National Front’s “patriots” and the liberal “globalists” represented by Macron. Pollsters and the media which had been proven wrong in not predicting a Brexit vote in Britain or a Trump win in the US, were very tentative about projecting a victory for Macron. They too were relieved that this time they were right in their calculations.
Had Le Pen won the election, then the dissolution of the EU started by Brexit would have got a massive fillip as she had vowed to take France out. France’s exit, particularly as it was one of the founder members of the EU, would have started a domino effect with all the major western countries eventually leaving. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker rejoiced and said: “French voters had chosen a European future.” German chancellor Angela Merkel, who is facing an election of her own in September, described the result as a “victory for a strong and united Europe”. “He ran a courageous pro-European campaign, stands for openness to the world and is committed decisively to a social market economy,” added Merkel.
“Europe and the world are watching us and waiting for us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment, threatened in so many places. Everyone said it was impossible. But they didn’t know France!”
—French President Emmanuel Macron
The pro-EU Macron has vowed to unite a divided and fractured France. “I will do everything to make sure you never have reason again to vote for extremes,” Macron told thousands of his supporters who had gathered in the grand courtyard of the Louvre, the enormous Paris palace-turned-museum, to celebrate his win.
The former investment banker said he would defend France and Europe. “Europe and the world are watching us and waiting for us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment, threatened in so many places” he added. “Everyone said it was impossible. But they didn’t know France!” he said speaking about his meteoric rise and unexpected victory.
Standing beside Macron was his wife, Brigitte Trogneux, 24 years his senior and his mentor, intellectual soulmate and confidante. Macron had first met Brigitte when he was 15 and she was his 40-year-old drama teacher at school. She was already married and a mother of three when he fell in love with her as a schoolboy of 17 and promised to marry her.
Their love affair scandalised the local community of Amiens in northern France, and so his parents sent him off to Paris to study, thinking the infatuation would wear off. But not so, the relationship endured age and distance and eventually they married in 2007.
“He had only one girlfriend of his own age briefly before he returned to Brigitte, and these two relationships are the only ones he has ever had with women, which is quite exceptional today,” said Anne Fulda, his biographer.
Brigitte tells Fulda in her book Such a Perfect Young Man how he made quite an impression on her as a pupil with his “exceptional intelligence, a way of thinking that I had never ever seen before”. Brigitte’s eldest child is two years older than Macron, the second is his age and the third, a year younger. However, they have accepted him into their family. Brigitte’s seven grandchildren call Macron “Daddy”, according to Fulda.
Commentators called Macron’s win a triumph of hope over hate and fear, of globalisation over nationalism and of open markets rather than closed economies.
In the months leading up to his official candidacy, French cartoonists and satirists regularly mocked the couple’s age difference, but his supporters and particularly women have lauded Macron’s life-choices, arguing it shows his phenomenal loyalty to Brigitte. They have also pointed out that Trump is also 24 years older than his wife, Melania, but no one finds it unusual.
Victory a plus for India
Macron’s centrist agenda should facilitate continuity in bilateral relations between India and France. In recent years, critical defence and nuclear deals have been signed by the two countries but have yet to see delivery. France, under outgoing President François Hollande, had in April 2015 agreed to assemble some of the Rafale jets India wants to purchase. Paris also agreed to use some Indian-made components for nuclear reactors France is supplying to India. Macron is likely to continue with these agreements.
Bilateral trade between India and France is at its lowest since 2010 and a protectionist government under Le Pen would not have helped, but with Macron, Delhi will certainly expect more free flow of goods.
More than 4,000 Indian students chose France for higher education in 2016 instead of going to the US under Trump or the UK. This trend should increase with a more welcoming Macron as opposed to an anti-immigrant Le Pen.
The EU will also now be more stable and strong. This is essential for India which sees it as an important pillar of global free trade, threatened after Brexit. EU is India’s topmost trade partner and one of the leading investors in the country. With a single market of 500 million people, it offers Indian companies unparalleled economic opportunities.
Macron has inherited a country under a state of emergency, still facing terror threats and struggling with a stagnant economy after decades of mass unemployment. It is also a divided country after an election in which anti-establishment anger saw the traditional left and right ruling parties ejected from the race in the first round—a first since World War II.
“He ran a courageous pro-European campaign, stands for openness to the world and is committed decisively to a social market economy.”
—German Chancellor Angela Merkel
His first challenge comes as early as next month when he has to try and win a parliamentary majority for his fledgling political movement. In a political landscape that has a strong hard left and a far-right, winning legislative elections can be an arduous task. But without a majority, Macron will not be able to carry out his manifesto promises—not a good start for a new president.
Though both Trump and Putin had openly backed Le Pen, Modi had hedged his bets by remaining silent. The National Front leader had reached out to the Indian embassy in Paris and communicated her “high regard” for Modi but no reciprocal admiration was voiced.
Though the two right-wing leaders may have certain ideological traits in common, Macron’s victory is certainly better for India’s foreign and economic policies.