Macron and Europe's revival

It's not just that Mr Emmanuel Macron won and will become, at age 39, France's youngest president. It's not merely that he defeated, in Ms Marine Le Pen, the forces of xenophobic nationalism exploited by US President Donald Trump. It's that Mr Macron won with a bold stand for the much-maligned European Union, and so reaffirmed the European idea and Europe's place in a world that needs its strength and values.

This, after Britain's dismal decision last year to leave the EU, and in the face of Mr Trump's woeful anti-European ignorance, was critical. Mr Macron underlined his message by coming out to address his supporters in Paris accompanied by the European anthem, Beethoven's Ode To Joy, rather than the Marseillaise - a powerful gesture of openness.

A Le Pen-led lurch into an Europe of nationalism and racism has been averted. President Vladimir Putin of Russia backed Ms Le Pen for a reason: He wants to break down European unity and sever the European bond with the United States. Instead, the centre held and, with it, civilisation.

A federalising Europe is the foundation of European post-war stability and prosperity. It offers the best chance for young Europeans to fulfil their promise. It is Europeans' "common destiny", as Mr Macron put it in his acceptance speech, standing before the French and EU flags. To think otherwise is to forget history. No wonder German Chancellor Angela Merkel, through her spokesman, immediately proclaimed a victory "for a strong and united Europe". That will require reform. Europe, complacent, has lost traction. Mr Macron recognised this, declaring: "I want to reweave the bond between citizens and Europe." More transparency, more accountability and more creativity are required. No miracle ever marketed itself more miserably than the EU.

Mr Macron, who came from nowhere in the space of a year at the head of a new political movement, did not make facile promises or make up stories. He stood by refugees; he stood by Europe's shared currency, the euro; and he was prepared to tell the French they cannot turn their back on modernity and prosper.

Through rational argument he increased a lead over Ms Le Pen that polls put at 20 per cent after the first round two weeks ago to 30 per cent, winning with 65 per cent of the vote to Ms Le Pen's 35 per cent. This, in the age of Mr Trump's fake news, fake claims and overall fakeness, was an important demonstration that reason and coherence still matter in politics.

Now the hard part begins. For the first time in France, the far right took more than a third of the vote, a reflection of the anger in the country at lost jobs, failed immigrant integration and economic stagnation. Mr Macron, who said he was aware of "the anger, the anxiety, the doubts", needs to address this social unease head-on by reviving a sense of possibility in France. Without change, Ms Le Pen will continue to gain support.

Change is notoriously hard to fashion in France. It is a country fiercely attached to the "acquis", or acquired rights, enshrined in its comprehensive welfare state. Many have tried. Many have failed.

It is especially hard without strong parliamentary backing, and Mr Macron will need that. Parliamentary elections will be held next month. His En Marche! (Onward!) movement must organise fast to build on his victory. It has extraordinary momentum. The traditional political landscape of the Fifth Republic - the alternation of centre-left Socialists and centre-right Republicans - has been blown apart.

Perhaps this very feat, without parallel in recent European political history, and Mr Macron's status as a centrist independent give him unique latitude to persuade the French, at last, that they can - like the Germans and the Dutch and the Swedes and the Danes - preserve the essence of their welfare state while forging a more flexible labour market that gives hope to the young. With 25 per cent of its youth unemployed, France undoes itself.

If France grows again, Europe will grow with it. This would constitute a powerful rebuke to the autocratic-nationalist school - Ms Le Pen with her sham of a political makeover, the xenophobic Mr Nigel Farage in Britain (friend of Mr Trump), Mr Putin in Moscow, Turkey's Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, of course, the US President himself, whose irresponsibility on the subject of America's European allies has been appalling.

Mr Macron's win is a victory for many things. He has demonstrated that France is not a country where racism and anti-European jingoism can win an election. He has reasserted the European idea and raised the possibility that France and Germany will conjure a revival of European idealism. He has rebuked the little Englanders who voted to take Britain out of the EU (and made a tough negotiation on that exit inevitable).

Above all, through his intelligence and civility, his culture and his openness, Mr Macron has erected a much-needed barrier to the crassness and incivility, the ignorance and the closed-mindedness that seep from Mr Trump's Oval Office and threaten to corrupt the conduct of world affairs.

Vive la France! Vive l'Europe! Now more than ever.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2017, with the headline 'Macron and Europe's revival'. Print Edition | Subscribe