Barack Obama was elected American president on the basis of lofty themes of hope and change. Macron won the first round on such a platform, but his large second round mandate is all about results.
The cacophony of cheers that rang out in the moments after the 8 pm announcement that Emmanuel Macron had swept to the Palais de l’Élysée was strong. It was not, however, one of surprise, or even the kind of jubilation one might expect to hear the moment the newly-coined savior of Europe was elected. Rather, it was almost a sound of relief, punctuated moments later by a return to the buzz that there was before, and perhaps an almost collective thought: “We knew he would win, and now that he has won, the real challenge begins.”
This can be surmised by the momentary cheers and relaxed attitude in the Carrousel du Louvre for the next two-odd hours as the crowd waited for Monsieur Macron, or it can be extracted directly from his victory speech. The President-elect spoke repeatedly of the challenge that he now has ahead of him and reminded the French over and over that he needed them, that they needed to participate in order for their goals to be achieved. The message was typical of the French ideals of solidarity and participation in government. His message was aimed, as he made sure to note, not just at functionaries, but at all workers, whom he mentioned far ahead of the government employees so often accused of dominating French politics.
Foreign observers noted the similarity between the Macron campaign and that of the former US president in 2008. Themes of hope and change were explicitly highlighted by Obama then and were emphasized in his video endorsement of Macron more recently when he applauded the focus on “people’s hopes and not their fears”. The similarity in the campaigns was striking, however, the causes for each campaign’s modus operandi were in fact quite different.
Mr. Macron’s campaign, like Obama’s, came at a time of crisis in France.
Obama ran against the cheerful and well-respected veteran John McCain but won handily on the back of his strong message as well as the deep unpopularity of his predecessor, George W Bush. Mr. Macron also ran in a time of crisis, this time under the threat of terrorism, replacing the most unpopular president of the French Fifth Republic. He stressed hope and optimism not just because of his successor, but because of his nationalistic, protectionist and often downright near-racist opponent, Marine Le Pen (to call her a pessimist is a grand understatement).
However, one would be mistaken if they believed the French elected Mr. Macron by a margin of 2 to 1 due only to his rhetorical capabilities and opposition to the Front National.
On the contrary, Macron is replacing a president known for doing very little while in office. The people of France expect action – this is reflected in his party’s name, En marche!, which can be translated as on the move, or as working. Whereas Obama promised in many ways to tone down the actions taken by Bush (in Iraq, on tax cuts, etc.), Macron wants to speed up the pace of reform that François Hollande initiated under his own direction as Minister of the Economy two years ago.
His promise to move quickly to advance the pace of job growth is key to his success. Obama worked to stop the damage of the financial crisis and from there moved to begin the recovery, but Macron is arriving as the economy is beginning to grow and will be expected to make good on his promise to capitalize on Brexit to France’s advantage.
One of the most striking passages in Macron’s victory speech was when he appealed to Madame Le Pen’s voters. He urged his supporters to stop booing as he mentioned her name and stated that he hoped there would be no reason for the electorate to resort to voting for such extremism in 2022.
Indeed, it is a sign of the panic that gripped Europe and France as populism swept the Anglophone world, that Monsieur Macron felt the need to look five years forward just hours after a jubilant 66% majority victory.
Such are the times – the President-elect needs to reduce economic uncertainty, stem terrorism’s rapid growth on the Continent, and integrate the workers of rural France left behind by globalization, not to mention those alienated by the wave of terror attacks that began with the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015.
The young President, sworn in on the 14th of May, is seen much as Obama was when he became America’s second-youngest President after John F Kennedy in 1960. The two leaders are popular throughout the world and expected to end crises that they did not start. Such lofty goals often result in disappointment. Just ask Obama, who spent the next eight years being reminded he had won a Nobel Prize before any accomplishment could be credited to his government.
Mr. Macron has been more careful, reminding his voters in the second round that the country is divided and that he needs the support of more than just his core base. This begins with the legislative elections set for June and will continue as he builds a coalition in the Assemblée Nationale. He will need to act quickly to avoid criticism from those whose support for him was based more on dislike for Madame Le Pen than anything else and will be thinking about the many predictions made by populists such as Nigel Farage that she will be the next French President in 2022.