Macron may change France in unintended ways

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, attends a campaign political rally in Paris, France, April 17, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - Luck as much as talent has propelled Emmanuel Macron to the French presidency. The centrist will need both in spades if he wants to be acclaimed for more than defeating National Front leader Marine Le Pen. At best the 39-year-old will push through limited reforms. At worst, he risks undermining the presidential system that underpins the country’s Fifth Republic.

The former investment banker on Sunday won the second-round runoff with almost two-thirds of the vote, a remarkable feat for his En Marche! movement, which was set up little more than a year ago. Victory for the staunch pro-European is a rejection of eurosceptic populists. Yet he also took advantage of widespread disillusionment with established political groups.

France’s mainstream right- and left-wing parties will now attempt to rebuild in time for legislative elections in June. Macron’s movement will also field parliamentary candidates, but may not enjoy as much electoral success as its founder. That leaves the next president with a couple of choices.

One option is to work with the political group that wins the most parliamentary seats - probably the centre-right Les Republicains - to implement his programme. Another is to cobble together a coalition of like-minded reformers from Les Republicains and the centre-left Socialists to push through a few policies on which all sides can agree. These could include lower labour taxes, some spending cuts, and more public investment.

Either way, Macron risks appearing in hock to the establishment that voters rejected. And while a cross-party alliance chimes best with his neither-left-nor-right pitch it could quickly become fractious. Delicate negotiations to seal such compacts could quickly degenerate into unseemly haggling over cabinet positions and policies.

That would deal a potentially lethal blow to French voters’ view of the office of president. The mystique of the powerful role established by Charles de Gaulle was reinforced by the likes of Francois Mitterrand. While it waned under Macron’s two predecessors, the Socialist Francois Hollande and the centre-right’s Nicolas Sarkozy, neither had to engage in the sort of public bartering on which Macron may now be forced to embark.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, a hard-left presidential candidate who won nearly a fifth of the vote in the first round, argued that France’s constitution should be rewritten to limit the head of state’s power and increase parliament’s influence. The risk of Macron’s stunning victory is that it ends up reinforcing the case for such a change.


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