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Emmanuel Macron Wins Big: But Should We Really Celebrate?

French President Macron from 2017. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Macron’s Reelection is News, but is it Good News? – Emmanuel Macron is back for another long pull as President of France. His 17-point margin of victory in Sunday’s election may seem impressive, but it stands more as a symbol of the dysfunction of French domestic politics. Macron begins his new five-year term with his leadership role in Europe diminished and France’s place in the Transatlantic Community ambivalent.

Macron’s reelection was no surprise. His rival, in the presidential runoff, Marine Le Pen, turned in a marginal performance in the presidential debate and proved unable to attract significant crossover votes from supporters of other candidates who fell by the wayside in the April 10 voting. 

That said, it would be a mistake to consider Macron’s reelection a political triumph. Turnout for the presidential runoff was the lowest since 1969. Macron drew more than a million votes less than he did in the 2017 presidential election. And polls show he remains deeply unpopular with French voters. No wonder. Macron has handled security and immigration issues poorly, while his social and environmental policies have exacerbated French socio-economic problems.  

Macron won because he was the least bad option, relying more on the weaknesses of his opponents than on personal merits or political achievements. The conservative front was internally divided. The far-left never found a platform that drew wide popular support. 

Few voters came away from this election thinking five more years of Macron will lead to a stronger, more prosperous, and self-confident France. 

As for foreign affairs, Macron does not have much more to offer Europe and the Transatlantic Community in terms of leadership. After Britain’s Brexit and Angela Merkel’s departure from European politics, Macron had the chance to stake claim as Europe’s new great leader, but that title ill suits him. His pro-EU rhetoric has always been mostly a disguise for nationalistic goals, fooling almost no one in Europe. His criticism of NATO as “braindead,” coupled with repeated calls for an autonomous all-European military and defense strategy, are seen principally as a ploy to ramp up France’s role and influence in the defense and military sectors. 

Macron also flubbed his opportunity to show he has the right stuff for leading in Europe when he balked at getting tough on Russia and China during the Ukraine crisis.

Further, for years Macron as sought to elevate his status in Europe by downgrading the importance of the Transatlantic Community. He did that, in part, by deliberating triangulating to offset U.S. interests and influence. During his first five-year term, he took an ambiguous approach toward the Kremlin. According to Disclose, France sold arms to Russia until 2020. Earlier this year, shortly before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Macron proposed to negotiate a new security order with Moscow, angering Eastern European countries. Moreover, in Libya Macron supported General Khalifa Haftar, who was notoriously backed by Moscow.

Macron also remains among the most pro-China leaders in Europe. He has consolidated trade relations between Paris and Beijing, signing 40 contracts with the People’s Republic in the energy, finance, tourism, aviation, and agri-food sectors in 2019 alone. 

Macron hopes that, by weakening transatlantic relations, France can achieve political hegemony over the European Union, toying with the idea of ​​an autonomous geopolitical bloc. That seems wishful thinking in a post-Ukraine era when distrust of Russia and China is going to be greater and closer relations with the U.S. will be more valued. 

This a mixed bag for U.S. interests and Europe. Macron’s track record of seeking accommodation with  Moscow and Beijing while undermining NATO through a continued push for EU defense should temper expectations. Macron will likely remain wedded to his big government, high taxation approach to economic management, a sustained push for further EU integration, and an antagonistic approach towards Brexit Britain. Islamism, which Macron has also sought to tackle, will remain both a security liability and a political flashpoint in France.

Macron’s weaknesses open up the question of who will assume the European leadership role and chart its path forward in the post-Ukraine War era. Certainly, the UK and Central Europe are going to play a stronger role. 

Biden’s initial impulse that he could outsource Europe to places like Paris is moribund. If anything the French elections confirm this. 

If the U.S. wants a stronger Europe—and it should—Washington needs to put more interest and emphasis on strengthening bilateral relations with broader number of governments. This would include the UK and Italy, as well as Northern, Central and other Southern European allies and partners.

 A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on matters of national security and foreign relations. Stefano Graziosi is an essayist and political analyst who writes for the Italian newspaper La Verità and the weekly magazine Panorama.