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Macron’s Victory is Extraordinary

by Bill Emmott on May 7, 2017

Now he must wake France up to the necessity of change, if he is to address citizens' hopes and fears

It counts as a huge relief to anyone who believes in liberty, the open society and European collaboration. But the election of Emmanuel Macron as France’s president, welcome as it is, does not mean that the moment of “peak populism” has passed in either Europe or America. The despair and disillusion that persuaded fully 35% (on early projections) of French voters to support the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, need now to be addressed. Otherwise she, or someone like her, will be back in 2022.

Populist-nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump in America, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or Nigel Farage in Britain have not invented the grievances that they exploit. They fan the flames of fear through lies, by demonising foreigners and by making empty promises. But the anger of their supporters is real.

France has had 10% or more of its workforce unemployed throughout the five-year presidency of the outgoing Socialist, François Hollande. Across the border in Italy, unemployment is even higher, and has been so for longer. Household incomes have been flat or falling for years in both countries.

Meanwhile the European Union, which in the past was seen as a source of hope, a source of solutions, has become in recent years associated with burdens, with dysfunction, with division. Membership of the euro has brought rules and constraints. If there are any benefits from it, ordinary French and Italian citizens cannot work out what they are.

Older French voters may well have rejected Marine Le Pen for fear that her desire for France to leave the euro would wipe out their savings. They will not have done so, by and large, out of much love for the currency or belief in European solutions.

Emmanuel Macron’s achievement in winning election is extraordinary. This 39-year-old is France’s youngest president ever. He has never before held elected office. He formed his party, En Marche, only a year ago, when he quit from the post as economy minister he had held under President Hollande.

Now he and his party have to win a working majority in the parliamentary elections that France will hold next month, on June 11th and 18th. They stand a good chance of doing that, such is the disarray of the mainstream Socialist Party and Republican Party. But then they actually have to address the grievances of French voters, and in doing so wake all French citizens up to the need for change. That, for sure, will be harder.

If Mr Macron wants to understand how hard it will be, he could do worse than talk to Matteo Renzi, who in 2014 became Italy’s youngest ever prime minister, at the same age of 39. He did so without having been elected to national office, having just been Mayor of Florence, but had the apparent advantage of having taken over a well established party organisation, the Democratic Party.

In his nearly three years in office, he achieved a handful of significant reforms. But the living standards and hopes of Italian citizens barely improved. Meanwhile, Renzi’s reputation as a fresh, innovative outsider swiftly declined as he surrounded himself with cronies from Florence and seemed to play the same sort of political games as had his predecessors.

In December last year he crashed and burned, resigning as prime minister following a resounding defeat over constitutional reforms

Now, Renzi is trying to make a comeback, ahead of general elections that will be held in Italy either in the Autumn of 2017 or likelier in February or March 2018. But it is an uphill struggle, with Italy’s most popular party now not his Democratic Party (which has split) but the populist Five Star Movement led by the comedian-cum-activist Beppe Grillo. Though not of the far right like Le Pen’s Front National, Five Star shares some of Le Pen’s policy stances, notably a referendum on euro membership and withdrawal from NATO.

This battle is going to run and run.

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