For the moment, it seems, those on the centre-left can breathe a sigh of relief. The French electorate opted for Emmanuel Macron and his ‘En Marche’ party rather than the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. Following the Dutch refusal of the populist choice, perhaps this vote suggests the tide is turning following the shocks of Brexit and Trump?
This may all be wishful thinking. Clues as to where Europe is heading after the French election can be gleaned by looking at the frames that were used to understand it.
First, the presidential contest reflected a stark choice between two models of globalisation. Macron represented openness, technology and optimism about France’s central role in the European project, Le Pen stood for the opposite. The Financial Times reminded readers that France is Europe’s third largest economy; its population enjoys higher standards of living and well-being than most Europeans, and by dint of its well-educated and skilled workforce, has the highest rates of labour productivity. It will be well-placed to benefit from a renewed round of economic growth in Europe.
Second, French politics is undergoing a dramatic shift as old categories of left and right are rendered less important and new categories emerge. This is evidenced in the ousting of the ‘traditional’ parties that have dominated the political scene for the past half century. This divide is both social and geographical. In The Twilight of Elite France, geographer Christophe Guilluy explores the chasm between “liberal France” of the big cities, linked into the high-tech networks of the European hub – London, Paris, Berlin – and “peripheral France … where Uber, bike-share schemes and co-working spaces are nowhere to be found”.
It was in “peripheral France” that the National Front found its main support, reflecting the third theme that shaped the Presidential contest. This drew on the long-standing distinction between ‘le pays réel’ and ‘le pays légal’, where ‘réel’ was equated with the ‘real France’: a rural France of church clocks, traditions and native people rooted in their ancestral soil, and ‘legal’ meant imposed by legislation, and rejected as artificial.
A game-changing election?
Until 2012, French presidential elections paid little attention to the question of ‘Europe’. This reflected a ‘permissive consensus’ in which France’s place at the heart of the European project was a given. The French political class was united on this, the apogee being the signing of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Though many electors did not share the elites’ enthusiasm for Europe, candidates studiously avoided highlighting this. The consensus held even after the gap between political elites and French people was revealed in the 2005 referendum when voters rejected ratification of the Lisbon treaty.
The 2008 global financial crisis ensured that Europe would in future feature in presidential elections. In the 2012 contest, President Sarkozy sought to make capital of his role, working with Germany’s Angela Merkel, in “saving” the European project. Opponents challenged that role. There was also the question of whether European integration was beneficial to France: in the aftermath of a financial crisis that originated in the US, the idea that the EU could provide a shield against the vicissitudes of globalisation became difficult to argue. The result was a breakdown in the rhetoric of unanimity. The era of permissive consensus has been replaced by an era of ‘constraining dissensus’ (with politicians keen to keep Europe off the agenda), but that too has broken down, and the question of Europe will be central to future electoral contests.
The end of the affair?
And this holds for all European countries. Whilst by the mid-1970s it seemed that European integration had run its course, in the 1980s the project enjoyed a revival. The downturn of the global economy meant that national governments found it difficult to resolve their domestic economic issues (inflation and unemployment). European co-operation seemed to offer a solution – growth could only be rebooted through the integration and expansion of markets.
The main impact of the Maastricht Treaty was economic, especially the idea of the European Monetary Union. This required that all countries adopt tough policies on public spending and avoid ‘spooking the markets’.
Concerns about loss of sovereignty, the democratic deficit, and threats to national identity by the free movement of people could all be contained provided the economy was growing. However, post-2008, the contradictions of this growth model have become apparent. The contraction of European economies, coupled with the imposition of austerity, has led many to question the EU’s legitimacy. In this election, the French people were faced with a stark choice – turn their back on the 60-year relationship with Europe, or follow the one candidate who is openly committed to making a go of it.
Seen in that light, the result is not surprising, but whether and how long the relationship with Europe will survive is not at all clear.