France, Germany look to future – Macron win boosts hopes of turn in populist tide

French President-elect Emmanuel Macron (center left), and outgoing President Francois Hollande (center right), stand at attention at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a ceremony to mark the end of World War II at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on May 8. Macron defeated far-right leader Marine Le Pen handily in Sunday’s presidential vote, and now must pull together a majority for his year-old political movement by mid-June legislative elections. (AP)

BERLIN, May 8, (AFP): Germany heaved a sigh of relief after liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron won France’s presidential election comfortably on Sunday, but the two staunch allies face tough challenges over Europe’s future. Chancellor Angela Merkel had emphatically thrown her support behind Macron against his far-right, anti-EU challenger Marine Le Pen, aware that the very existence of the European Union was at stake in the vote. Minutes after Macron’s win, her spokesman Steffen Seibert underlined the message, writing on Twitter: “Congratulations, @EmmanuelMacron. Your victory is a victory for a strong and united Europe and for French-German friendship.” Macron shares Merkel’s commitment to the bloc, which has been deeply shaken by Britain’s decision to quit.

The president-in-waiting, who positions himself as a centrist, has also campaigned on the type of sweeping changes to the French economy that Berlin had long championed and implemented more than a decade ago. During a visit to Berlin in March when he met with Merkel, Macron said they discussed “my willingness to reform our labour market, our education system and to have a sensible fiscal consolidation, an investment package for our economy and to respect our commitments”.

Macron’s stance had led critics at home to portray him as Merkel’s puppet, with Le Pen hitting out before the polls that France would be governed by a woman after the vote — either herself or Merkel. Merkel herself has rubbished such comparisons, stressing she has “absolutely no doubt that Emmanuel Macron will be a strong president”. There are also signs from within her party and grand right-left coalition that it might not be just smooth sailing between the two. Macron, a former economy minister in Francois Hollande’s government, wants to reform as well as bolster the EU. He has said he is for setting up a separate budget for the eurozone, the 19 countries that use the common currency, and also proposes giving the eurozone its own parliament and finance minister. “In Brussels the hopes are high. But it’s not so easy with the French-German duo. Berlin’s CDU circles (Merkel’s party) are sceptical about, if not deeply opposed to, Macron’s ideas,” said the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “For such wide-reaching reforms, it would be necessary to change the treaties, which in turn would require a referendum in France that carries with it uncertainties. That alone, in Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble’s view, is unrealistic,” added the daily. “Rather (Schaeuble) wants the EU nations to first reduce their debt before he is ready to look at creating about new competencies for the EU,” the newspaper said.

Some even hailed Macron’s defeat of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen as “three-nil” after moderate politicians also beat extremists in Austria and the Netherlands in recent months. For them, Macron’s victory brought badly needed relief after last year’s shock results in Britain and the United States, widely seen as revolts against “establishment” candidates and institutions. While Trump has vowed to put “America first”, curtail immigration and free trade, and Britain has turned its back on the EU, Macron has pledged economic reforms for a France at the heart of the European project. In Europe’s other big election this year, the German vote in September, centre-right Chancellor Angela Merkel is leading in the polls while the fringe anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is losing steam. “After Brexit and Trump’s victory, the Western world and Europe have been spared another political earthquake,” said German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, adding that Europe had dodged the “nightmare” of a far-right leader in the Elysee Palace. The New York Times said that France, like the United States, Britain and other major democracies, faced the challenge of “many people feeling marginalised by globalisation, economic stagnation, an unresponsive government, unemployment, faceless terrorism and a tide of immigrants”. However the newspaper, which has been at the forefront of critical coverage of the Trump presidency, said that French voters had opted for a “future in Europe rather than in resentful isolation” and delivered “a victory of hope and optimism over fear and reaction”.

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