What France did yesterday should matter a great deal to all of us and I may hope that, in the fullness of time, we in the UK may be able to look back and be thankful that France rejected the far-right policies of Marine Le Pen. In the meantime and despite having concerns on what all this means for ourselves in respect of Brexit, after weeks of upheaval we should welcome as being genuine as opposed to political rhetoric and hype, Emmanuel Macron’s genuine calls for France to unite behind its new leader.
There are plenty of lessons for the UK to take home from the election of Emmanuel Macron. The first is that it is possible for an electorate to reject the status quo of politics. While we may observe, unkindly perhaps, that Marine Le Pen’s rejection by voters has not been dissimilar from the manner in which the British electorate has rejected the policies of UKIP and that has already made the party irrelevant, but it is also an observation that suggest to me that the French people are not prepared to buy into promises that could lead to years of upheaval, political instability and potentially even anarchy.
Le Pen’s promises to lower taxation whilst increasing welfare payments for the working class, cutting migration by 80% to 10,000 a year, making it more difficult to become a French citizen, ending free access to basic healthcare for illegal migrants, reinstating border checks and expelling foreigners on the watch list of intelligence services, potentially leaving the Euro and possibly, following Britain’s planned exit from the European Union with a so-called Brexit, even furthering a French version, have been proved to be unacceptable and out of reach.
Despite my reservations about the wisdom and longevity of the Euro currency and indeed, of the European Union itself, I have no wish to see either collapse. Changed in structure maybe and removed of some of its more unacceptable powers and bureaucracy, but in the great scheme of things in this increasingly uncertain world of geo-politics, I firmly believe that we need to see a strong and vibrant EU – one that outside of it we can both challenge and support.
While I may well see the Euro currency as still being an interesting experiment born well before its time, I also believe that we need the Euro to survive and prosper. It may sound strange for me to say all this at a time when we are about to begin negotiations to leave the EU, but in respect of peace, stability and harmony across the European Continent, we in Britain really do need the EU to prosper just as much as any of the remaining member states do themselves. With or without Britain, I have no wish to see the EU sinking into an abyss where it becomes moribund and its members flounder into political and economic instability. Brussels may not be for us it seems but it does work for many others. The French election vote yesterday is testament to that.
So, like others, I agree that the election of Emmanuel Macron as the next French president yesterday was a very good day for Europe just as I may hope that it will be for the rest of the world as well. France is an important nation and like Britain, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Undoubtedly, the French economy is in a mess and both the Euro and EU may in small part be to blame. But in reality, the deeper underlying problem in France has nothing to do with either the Euro or EU – it is that much of France has failed to embrace modernisation and change, its labour laws are obsolete just as is its thinking and how it has allowed the creation of what is all but an obsession with maintaining seemingly separate sovereign status whilst being within the EU. These and many other acts of obsolescence have and continue to hinder economic progress in France. Worse is that France never embraced globalization and for decades it has believed in policies that see the State being able to either guarantee or provide. The word affordability doesn’t really exist in France. Of course, you may well say that so have we overspent what the state can reasonably be expected to embrace and afford here in the UK in respect of health and welfare and you may well be right. But France has always been different believing that the State has not only a duty to provide but also one to control.
So, I wish Emmanuel Macron well. He is young, charming and ambitious but even so, if he somehow manages to put through policies combining budget cuts with more spending in French infrastructure and an extension of the welfare state together with increasing labour market flexibility without creating further strife I shall be very surprised. A little more than a month from now (11th and 18th June respectively) Legislative elections for the Assemblée Nationale are due to take place in order to elect the 577 members of the 15th National Assembly of the French Fifth Republic. Macron will be hoping that French voters give him sufficient support in the form of an absolute majority that will allow him some ease in carrying out his reforming plans. I have no idea whether there is sufficient time to allow voters to come to terms with what Macron will need but we will see. If not of course, the danger is that he [Macron] then becomes another Francois Hollande, yet another President either prevented from forcing through change because his hands were tied behind his back or that didn’t carry enough style, panache or maybe have enough guts to push much needed change through.
We move on and I make no comment here about the UK General Election in relation to what happened in France yesterday. But I will share the view of a friend of mine in DC overnight who just as I do, hopes now that Angela Merkel is equally successful as Macron was last night in Paris when she faces Bundestag elections in September. My friend’s expressed belief was that “Influence will be there if solidity in Europe can be maintained with a reinvigorated Franco-German machine”. Living on the other side of the pond as he does, he does not believe that “the instability that originates on our [US] side of the Atlantic will be going away any time soon” rather that “a strong Franco-German relationship will [be able to] stand up to that and will provide some form of counterweight”.
To a greater of lesser extent, I share that view. There will of course be those that fear Macron’s election strengthens Brussels hand in the Brexit negotiations. It may well do but we are where we are and as I said on Friday, we made our bed by ourselves and we must now lie on it and take the consequences. For good or bad, we are headed out and we must rise to the challenge. That of course does and should not mean that our current European partners should not remain our allies particularly in respect of France and the UK being partners on a variety of projects.
Not just yesterday but throughout the French Presidential election campaign, what has occurred in France is quite remarkable. Virtually unknown until he formed a political party less than a year ago, Emmanuel Macron has come from absolutely nowhere to defeat all his challengers. In his wildest dreams he could not have imagined six months ago that he might be the French President within weeks! Just imagine a year ago in the UK if someone that we had never heard of formed a political party and that in just under five weeks from now, he or she managed to defeat Tories, Labour, Lib-Dems, UKIP et-al and went on to form a Government. OK, so Macron doesn’t have any equivalent MP’s as yet and the system in France is somewhat different. That is what makes what happened yesterday all the more remarkable.
Normality resumes tomorrow with hopefully, a detailed piece on RAF Brize Norton.
CHW (London – 8th May 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785