The Irish Times view on Emmanuel Macron: Europe’s de facto leader

If Macron’s presidency is to be truly transformational, he himself must change

In 2017, when he caused a sensation by smashing the traditional duopoly of French politics and winning the presidency in his first election, Emmanuel Macron said his task was to ensure that in 2022 there was "no more reason to vote for the extremes". It was never a realistic ambition, but the scale of the rise in the radical and populist votes in this year's election was remarkable nonetheless.

Macron's defeated challenger in the runoff, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, won 41.5 per cent. In 2002, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen scored just 18 per cent. The third force of French politics today, meanwhile, is the veteran leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In total, 58 per cent of the first round vote went to populist, radical or extremist candidates.

And yet Macron has performed a stunning feat in retaining the presidency. His 58.5 per cent vote, coming after a turbulent first term dominated by crises at home and abroad, is among the highest in the history of the fifth republic. Without that second term, Macronism might have been a historical blip or aberration. With it, the 44-year-old can claim to have transformed the political landscape. Facing a reactionary opponent who favours tighter borders and rails against the “globalist” elite, Macron stood proudly on a platform of liberal, tolerant, European values. Many, including the leaders of the two formerly dominant blocs that imploded in the first round, had assumed such a formula could no longer deliver the presidency.

With a renewed mandate, Macron now has the power to make his presidency truly transformational. But that will require him to change. His arrogance and impatience have alienated many voters, convincing them that he fails to grasp their daily struggles. The country is deeply riven along class and generational lines. The urban-rural divide was one of the themes of the campaign. Macron has no shortage of ideas for reforming France, and the decline in unemployment on his watch is one of his most important achievements, but unless he can avoid a recurrence of the social unrest that marked so much of his first term, his room for manoeuvre will quickly contract.

A similar shift will be required at EU level, where Macron's ambition too often has been undermined by an inability to forge the types of alliances that are a prerequisite to progress. The Covid-19 pandemic, the rise of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine have all helped to make the case for the stronger, more strategically autonomous EU that Macron has long championed. Now, with Angela Merkel off the stage and her successor Olaf Scholz still finding his feet, Macron, his stature enhanced by re-election, has emerged as the EU's de facto leader. That means the whole of Europe, not just France, has a stake in his success.