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A New President in France

A New President in France

Oded Eran, Adi Kantor

INSS Insight No. 927, May 9, 2017

Beyond Macron’s ability to curb the trend toward social and political division, heightened by the recent presidential election, France’s new president will be judged according to his performance on three tightly-linked issues: significant economic change, a restored sense of security, and revitalization of the European Union. Political and economic logic forces Macron into close cooperation with Germany, and France and Germany will dominate the EU after the UK’s withdrawal from the organization. A general improvement in the sense of security will have a positive effect on the Jews in France, who are exposed to increasing physical and verbal harassment by nationalistic and Muslim anti-Semitic groups. There are reasonable grounds for optimism about economic recovery, success in the struggle against terrorism, and the strengthening of the moderate liberal center. At the same time, positive outcomes are not assured and depend, more than anything else, on a restoration of confidence among Europeans in the ideas on which the EU is based and the ability of the organization and its member states to provide them with physical and economic security.

Following the presidential elections, the French nation is waking up to a new political reality. At least for now, the old structure of French politics based on two main parties – a socialist Party and a conservative party, the descendant of de Gaulle’s party has been erased. What remains are four ideological currents: liberal capitalist, represented by newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron; extreme right wing, represented by Marine Le Pen; traditional rightist conservative, which after Sarkozy failed to find a charismatic leader; and leftist, represented by outgoing President François Hollande. The results of the presidential elections, 65 percent for Macron and 35 percent for Le Pen, will affect the future of the European Union and Israel’s relations with this important organization.

France’s new President will have to deal with ongoing economic problems, notably a high unemployment rate of 10 percent among the general population and 25 percent among young people; the waves of immigration from Africa and the Middle East; terrorism by Islamic extremists; growing racism, accompanied by anti-Semitism; and most of all, the implications of these problems for the unity of the French people and the future of the European Union. Macron’s large majority over Le Pen cannot conceal the emergence, and not only in France, of an extreme rightist bloc in Europe based on nationalist ideology and fed by both xenophobia and disgust with the European Union. Macron was elected president only because many who did not support his election platform nevertheless voted for him in opposition to Le Pen. This is his strength, but it is also likely to be a future explanation for his disappearance from the political scene in France, which could prove as sudden as his surprising election as president, should he fail to meet his voters’ expectations. The key to his success will therefore be above all healing the rift between the two camps, because despite his victory, Macron cannot ignore the support for Le Pen by a third of the electorate. Beyond his ability to rein in the trend toward division, he will be judged according to his performance on three intertwined issues: significant economic change, a restored sense of security, and revitalization of the European Union.

Macron’s platform includes a series of economic measures, including reform of the pension system, a major cut in corporate taxation, and lowering of the government deficit, with reduced employment in the public sector. This platform reflects the personal background of Macron himself, who before serving in the cabinet of Hollande, a socialist, worked in the banking sector. Reducing the unemployment rate, especially among those under 35, is one of the most difficult tests facing Macron. Cutting taxes is an important step in this direction, but it will not be sufficient. Much depends on France’s ability to move from deficit to surplus in its balance of trade. France’s main export destinations are Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom. While trade with Germany is subject to the prevailing regime in the European Union, trade with the United States will change if the United States and the European Union reach agreement on a free trade zone between them, and trade with the United Kingdom will depend on a new agreement establishing relations between the European Union and the UK, following the Brexit.

Political and economic logic forces Macron into close cooperation with Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel. France and Germany will dominate the EU after the UK’s withdrawal from the organization, both within the EU internal framework and the EU’s foreign relations. These two countries will determine whether negotiations with the UK on its withdrawal from the EU reflect a desire to punish the UK or an intention to design an agreement that will satisfy the interests of both the UK and the EU. A joint position by France and Germany may well also soften President Trump’s basic rejection of the trade agreements signed by the US.

Relations between France under Macron and the United States under Trump presidency are beginning from a low point, following Trump’s statements, which were interpreted as support for Le Pen, and in particular his hard line, like Le Pen’s, against the immigration of Muslims. However, Macron’s economic background and attitude toward the solution of France’s economic problems, which clearly echoes Trump’s approach, may facilitate the opening of a positive dialogue between them.

Cooperation between France and Germany may generate changes in policy on internal immigration in the EU and migration from the outside, which bears a sensitive political and moral context. A determined stance by Merkel and Macron on the issue cannot eliminate the influence of waves of immigration into and within Europe, but while internal movement is anchored in conventions and agreements between the EU members and cannot readily be changed, it will be easier to change the arrangements concerning immigration into the EU.

To a great extent, an individual’s sense of security is a result of the government’s approach to terrorism and its causes, and success depends in part on cooperation between European countries. On this issue as well, in which substantial progress has already taken place, cooperation between the main intelligence services on the continent in the EU and NATO frameworks, which Merkel and Macron can enhance, can improve the situation from a French citizen’s perspective.

A general improvement in the sense of security will also have a positive effect on the Jews in France, who are exposed to increasing physical and verbal harassment by nationalistic and Muslim anti-Semitic groups. Not long before the elections, Le Pen tried to repair her image and that of her movement as Holocaust-deniers by creating a quasi-alliance between those fighting against extremist Islam. Most French Jews voted for Macron, however, even if only as the lesser of two evils. Together with his recognition of the role played by the French government during WWII in causing injustice and suffering to French Jews, Macron also alleged that the Jewish community had lagged behind in assimilating into French society, and that Muslim and Jewish schools were teaching resentment of the French Republic because this is commanded in the Qu’ran and the Torah. French Jews will certainly be encouraged by Macron’s decisive victory, but like Macron, they cannot ignore the fact that one third of the electorate supported Le Pen.

Macron’s attitude toward Israel includes both approval and criticism. On one of his visits to Israel, he referred to strengthening relations between Israel and France in entrepreneurship, innovation, and research, and called for denying support to the BDS movement. Macron has also refrained from expressing recognition of a Palestinian state, though he expressed opposition to Israeli settlements on the West Bank. In view of the weighty tasks facing him as a new and inexperienced President, especially in the international arena, it is doubtful whether he will devote any effort to rejuvenating his predecessor’s initiative aimed at restarting the political process between Israel and the Palestinians. A possible strengthening of the connection between Berlin and Paris will also strengthen those countries in the EU that on the one hand recognize a moral debt toward the Jewish people and the security of Israel, while on the other hand are uninhibited in criticizing the Israel government’s policy on matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Other issues in French foreign relations will likewise be reassessed. For example, relations with Moscow will be affected not only by the continued Russian presence in parts of Ukraine, but also by revelations of hacked computers in the Macron headquarters and Macron’s criticism of the Russian President, who, Macron believes, is not doing enough to stop the bloodbath in Syria.

Finally, after the presidential elections in Austria, the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, and the presidential elections in France, some are saying that the nationalist right in Europe that foments xenophobia and hatred grounded in gender, race, and religion biases, and that fans economic difficulties, has reached its peak, and opposition to it has been successful. This conclusion, however, is premature and dangerous, because the reasons for the rise and success of the right wing parties have not disappeared. There are reasonable grounds for optimism about economic recovery, success in the struggle against terrorism, and the strengthening of the moderate liberal center. At the same time, positive outcomes are not assured, and more than anything else, depend on a restoration of confidence among Europeans in the ideas on which the EU is based and the ability of the organization and its member states to provide them with physical and economic security.


Sharon Kessler and Sarah Roost contributed to this article.

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