Observers say President Trump’s visit today with newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron was a brief, but important, stop on his first diplomatic tour — particularly for Macron, whose lack of political experience rivals that of the U.S. president.
On May 7, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron won the presidency with 66 percent of the vote, defeating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who received 34 percent of the vote, according to the French Ministry of the Interior.
The French president is elected by popular vote over two rounds and can serve for two five-year terms. Macron and Le Pen advanced to the final round of the election after receiving the highest percent of the vote — 23.7 percent and 21.7 percent, respectively — in the first round.
The two candidates beat out the typical, mainstream party candidates including François Fillon, the center-right Republican candidate and a former prime minister, and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon.
Support for Fillon wavered due to allegations that he misused public funds and paid his family for parliamentary work they did not perform while serving as prime minister. Support for Hamon was scarce due to party fractures and the incredibly low popularity of Socialist President François Hollande, who left office with only a four percent approval rating according to a poll conducted by French newspaper Le Monde. Both Hamon and Fillon then encouraged their supporters to vote for Macron to prevent Le Pen from winning.
According to BYU faculty and students familiar with the election, politics seemed to prevail in every conversation — much like last November’s presidential showdown in America. Debate was rampant in the streets, at a café and even at church.
Megan Ryssman, a 2016 BYU graduate in public relations and French who was visiting Paris during the election, reminisced on an election-night conversation with French friends debating the merits of each candidate.
“You could feel the importance of this election to the French people,” Ryssman said. “Uber drivers, waiters, church members, tour guides — everyone was talking politics. It was very polarizing!”
The mainstream party candidates’ failures in conjunction with Macron and Le Pen’s success signaled what The Atlantic called “a rebuke of the political establishment that has dominated French politics for decades.”
Both Macron and Le Pen come from relatively small parties with little political clout.
Le Pen is the leader of The National Front, a party that was started by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 1972. The far-right party is anti-EU, anti-immigration and “pro-France.” The National Front holds only two seats in the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament in which constituents directly elect their representatives.
Le Pen’s populist rhetoric seemed to echo that of U.S. President Donald Trump during the U.S. 2016 presidential election. Although President Trump never officially endorsed Le Pen, he said she is “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France,” in an interview with The Associated Press.
Macron started his party, En Marche — now La Republique En Marche — in April 2016 after leaving his post as President Hollande’s Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs. Since his party is so new, Macron is its first candidate. The 39-year-old centrist has never before held public office; he worked as an investment banker before becoming a senior advisor to President Hollande in 2012. Macron ran on a progressive, pro-EU platform, calling for a Eurozone parliament, economic reforms and open immigration. Former President Barack Obama endorsed Macron in a video that Macron shared on Twitter.
“I have admired the campaign that Emmanuel Macron has run,” Obama said in the video. “He has stood up for liberal values. He put forward a vision for the important role that France plays in Europe and around the world. And he is committed to a better future for the French people. He appeals to people’s hopes and not their fears.”
BYU political science professor Wade Jacoby explained that France’s traditional parties failed during the election, but that does not mean their ideals have failed.
“The French electoral system is a bit like our own in that it provides very strong incentives for larger parties to stick together if they can,” Jacoby said. “Because it has two rounds, it also opens some space for smaller parties, though not nearly as much as in a proportional representation system; thus, what you’re going to see is the two older French parties returning under different labels and names.”
Macron took office on May 14 as France’s youngest president ever. He is also the first centrist president the country has had since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who was elected in 1974.
French Professor Yvonne LeBras, who is originally from Rennes, France, is a centrist and was pleased with Macron’s win.
“I listened to all the candidates one by one,” LeBras said. “He’s the only one who makes sense, you know. He’s rational; he’s not there to fight against people who don’t have the same opinion.”
Despite Macron’s comfortable victory, however, he has many challenges to overcome.
Macron received the vast majority of the vote, but many French people abstained from voting as a sign of protest. According to The Washington Post, about 15.5 million people, one-third of registered voters, blank voted or did not vote at all.
Ryssman noted that many French people she spoke to after the election were unsure what to expect from Macron since he is neither the traditional right nor left. The majority also expressed that they voted for Macron simply because he was a better choice than Le Pen. People’s excitement, Ryssman explained, was more for Le Pen’s loss than Macron’s win.
“On the plane home to the U.S. I sat next to a french couple, and we ended up talking about politics,” Ryssman said. “They said they voted for Macron because they believed that Le Pen’s extreme far right beliefs would hurt the future of their children and grandchildren. They said they are not extremely excited about Macron because they don’t know exactly what he is going to do and he doesn’t have a lot of experience, but that he was clearly the better of the two choices.”
This lack of support for the new president could prove a large difficulty for him in the coming months. The legislative elections will be held between June 10 and 17 and will largely determine what kind of leader Macron can be.
“All he needs is a majority of the national assembly in order to govern,” LeBras said. “He wants to govern, of course, and to introduce new reforms.”
What it means for the U.S.
President Trump and President Macron have their political differences, but the two newly-elected presidents are expected to continue the strong Franco-American relationship.
LeBras said France shares common security goals with the U.S.: both countries are nuclear powers, have large armies (France has the strongest army in Europe, according to The Global Firepower Index), share information and fight against ISIS. And, LeBras said, France is “not going to stop” combatting terrorism.
Macron is also pro-trade, meaning he wants to have strong economic relations with the U.S. — but only insomuch that any trade deal is well thought out and benefits the E.U.
LeBras believes Macron will push forward the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and E.U.
Trump, however, has vacillated between supporting the proposal and condemning it. Trump would prefer to make agreement with individual states — he tried to do so with Germany, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that an agreement could only occur between the U.S. and the E.U., as is the law in the European bloc. It now appears that Trump has had a “change of heart” and wants to resurrect negotiations, according to Forbes.
Trump’s changing views on the E.U. have led to some uneasiness amongst the French; Ryssman noted that not a single person she spoke to in France viewed Trump as a presidential figure, with one Uber driver even telling her, “Trump was just a reality TV personality and not a proper president.”
The European Council on Foreign Relations explained that Trump is the least popular American president in the E.U. since World War II, so negotiating a trade deal with the Trump administration could have many negative implications for the E.U. institutions.
LeBras, however, does not think that Trump’s unpopularity in France will have a negative impact on the long-standing relationship between the two countries.
“France was the first country to recognize the United States as an independent state on the sixth of February 1778, so we are the oldest ally of the U.S. I don’t think it’s going to change,” LeBras said.
“Macron’s core idea is to relaunch European cooperation through the E.U., which has been struggling to help fix Europe’s problems,” Jacoby said. “Trump has shown little interest in or understanding of the E.U. (so far). Macron will meet Trump this week, and perhaps they will find useful common ground, particularly on issues around counter terror. But the heart of Macron’s program looks to Germany and the E.U. and not to the U.S. right now.”