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Brussels relieved, for now, ahead of Macron vs. Le Pen clash on Europe

© Eric Feferberg, AFP | French presidential election candidate for the En Marche ! movement, Emmanuel Macron (C), waves at supporters as his wife Brigitte Trogneux (R) looks on, on stage at the Parc des Expositions in Paris, on April 23, 2017.

Text by Tracy MCNICOLL

Latest update : 2017-04-25

Sunday’s hotly contested first-round vote sets up a clash between France’s presidential finalists over the future of the European Union, with Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen representing widely divergent visions of the bloc.

Relief that at least one pro-EU candidate made the runoff on Sunday night was palpable as the results rolled in. The euro jumped briefly to five-month highs, while global markets reacted with visible relief on Monday. Europe’s STOXX 600 index rose two percent in the wake of the news.

“I am a bit surprised by the strength of the rally because this result itself is not that surprising,” Philippe Gudin de Vallerin, Barclay’s head of European research, told Reuters. “But we have a relief for Europe in a way that the worst case scenario has been avoided and that is why we have seen the rally in all markets,” he said, noting there is also hope that a Macron presidency would strengthen relations between France and Germany.

Down the stretch, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s momentum made markets nervous about the potential of an all-Eurosceptic final showdown pitting the far-leftist against National Front candidate Le Pen. That face-off would almost certainly have spurred an existential crisis in Europe. Mélenchon, like Le Pen, pledged a referendum on France’s membership in the EU after a period of negotiating wholesale change for the bloc. “The EU, we change it or we leave it,” the far-leftist had promised.

“Seeing French and European Union flags saluting Emmanuel Macron’s result, it is the hope and the future of our generation,” Europe’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, tweeted in French late Sunday night.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reached out to congratulate France’s headline Europhile, Macron, for his first-round result and “wished him good luck for what follows”, according to the Commission’s chief spokesperson, Margaritis Schinas, on Twitter after Sunday night’s results.

Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker, stood out from the crowded field of 11 first-round candidates – fully seven of whom were considered outright Eurosceptics – as the only candidate who didn’t oppose giving more power to the EU.

Macron is seeking to accelerate European integration, pledging to endow the Eurozone – the collection of countries that use the euro currency – with its own central parliament, finance minister and budget. His European proposals include a European Defence Fund to finance shared military equipment and joint R&D programmes, a permanent European general defence headquarters, a European Security Council bringing together members’ key military, diplomatic and intelligence officials, and a centralised European database for intelligence services.

Le Pen, meanwhile, wants to reestablish France’s monetary, legislative, territorial and economic sovereignty. She seeks to free France from European constraints and pushes French economic patriotism, where Macron is stumping for a Buy European Act. Le Pen also rejects European free trade treaties with the United States and Canada.

EU relief

“Brussels was worried. There is relief,” said EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici, who, like Macron, is a former French economy minister who served under Socialist President François Hollande.

A poll by the OpinionWay firm released on Monday showed Macron topping Le Pen 61 percent to 39 percent ahead of the run-off on May 7.

But Moscovici warned against celebrating too early, saying it was “frightening that [Le Pen] still got 7.6 millon votes.” Indeed, between Le Pen’s 21.43 percent, Mélenchon’s 19.62 percent and the scores of the phalanx of Eurosceptic also-rans, the anti-EU vote during France’s first-round hit 46 percent.

Europe featured very little in debate during the first-round campaign, in stark contrast to the degree of worry the anti-EU bids elicited on financial markets.

“Rarely has the European issue held such a preeminent place on all the candidates’ platforms as in this electoral campaign. Yet, paradoxically, the same candidates do not seem to show much appetite to discuss Europe,” Pierre Vimont, a 38-year career French diplomat, wrote for Carnegie Europe days before the first-round vote.

In televised debates, the issue of France’s relationship with the European Union was largely relegated to the relatively minor matter of rules over workers from one EU country posted to jobs in another.

In one missed opportunity, during the TV debate between all 11 hopefuls on April 4, Le Pen began to detail how she would extract France from Europe before she was interrupted by an overzealous moderator – “Briefly, briefly!” – so that political minnows Jean Lassalle and Nathalie Arthaud, allotted equal speaking time throughout the official campaign period, could chime in with their two cents. (In the event, Lassalle and Arthaud combined for a total 1.86 percent of the vote on Sunday.)

Vimont explained the paradox between the prominence of Europe in candidates’ programmes and its absence in their discourse, saying it reflects “both the growing importance Europe has progressively gained in French politics over the last 20 years and the strongly divisive factor it has become for the main political parties.”

“From the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty to the 2005 vote on the draft EU constitution, Right and Left have struggled, often in vain, to preserve their unity when faced with the prospect of more or less European integration,” wrote Vimont, who served as France’s ambassador to the EU from 1999 to 2002 and its ambassador to the United States from 2007 to 2010.

In 1992, France approved the Maastricht Treaty by a small referendum majority of 51 percent. Later, in 2005, asked to approve a proposed European constitution, French voters defied mainstream party lines as well as pollster expectations when nearly 55 percent said "No" to the document. Many didn't hide their sense of betrayal when a freshly elected Nicolas Sarkozy, who won the French presidency in 2007, quickly worked to push through a pared-down version of the document without consulting the public with a new vote. The controversial Treaty of Lisbon ultimately came into effect in 2009.

Echoes of 1992

Indeed, Sunday’s vote showed a stark divide between city centres, which largely voted for Macron, and “the rest”, where Marine Le Pen was often favoured; an electoral map that French geographer Jacques Lévy says lines up well with the voting lines after France’s 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty.

“Until now, it was a rift that only manifested itself on European issues, during referenda [over Maastricht in 1992 and the 2005 vote on the EU Constitution],” Lévy told FRANCE 24. “The map for this presidential election incidentally resembles those seen in Britain, with the Brexit vote, but also in the US with the election of Donald Trump and even for the legislative elections in the Netherlands,” he added.

© Joel Robine, AFP | Anti-globalization activist José Bové (L) and Socialist senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon participate at a debate with rail workers in Paris on 25 May 2005, during their “No” campaign ahead of the May 29, 2005, French referendum on the European Constitution.

“In the suburbs [after Sunday’s vote], we see the 1992 map again. They had given a majority of their votes to the ‘no’ side on Maastricht in 1992 and this time it is Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s camp that captured that part of the electorate, worried about the EU,” Lévy said.

“Patriotic and European, I will put my trust in Emmanuel Macron on May 7. France must remain European!” French conservative Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said in response to Sunday’s results, while British pundits on Monday fretted over how a Macron presidency in France might make negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU more difficult.

Top pro-Europe German politicians, conservative and social democrat alike, have shown little restraint in their plaudits for Macron. On Sunday night, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel went so far as to say, “I’m sure that [Macron] will become the new French president,” according to the German news agency dpa. Gabriel, a Social Democrat, called the French centrist “the only pro-European candidate who didn’t hide behind prejudices against Europe”.

During the campaign, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaüble took the unusual step of explicitly endorsing the Europhile Macron. Schäuble is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which is traditionally allied with France’s conservative Les Républicains. Merkel met with Les Républicains’s François Fillon, as well as Macron and the Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon during the campaign.

Heavyweight Europhobes were also quick to react to France’s vote. Dutch populist Geert Wilders tweeted “Congratulations sent to Marine Le Pen. A day of celebration for all Patriots in Europe. On to the 2nd round and the Presidency!”

Meanwhile, British Brexit-backing populist Nigel Farage showed his contempt for Le Pen’s Europhile run-off opponent on Sunday night. “Macron speaking with EU flag behind him. Says it all,” he tweeted.

Date created : 2017-04-24

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