PARIS — In the end the French election turned on the most unlikely of subjects: Europe. Yes, the ugly European duckling of 2016 politics — rejected by Britain, mocked by President Trump — ushered Emmanuel Macron into the Élysée Palace as France’s youngest president.
Macron, throughout his campaign, was strong in his support of the European Union and its shared currency, the euro. That was risky; identification with the European Union hardly seemed a winning ticket. But it was precisely on the euro and the union that Marine Le Pen, the rightist candidate of the National Front, committed public political suicide.
In the final TV debate, days before this month’s vote, she babbled and blundered for minutes on end about Europe and its currency. It was, as Macron put it, “du n’importe quoi” — roughly meaningless garbage. And it was garbage that touched the French in a very sensitive area: their pocketbooks.
The French, unlike Americans, don’t talk about money but they think about it as much as anyone else.
Le Pen confused the euro and the ECU (a basket of European currencies once used as a unit of account); she seemed to think Britain had been in the euro and made the wild claim that Brexit had sent the British economy skyrocketing; she blabbered about the coexistence of a restored franc for French people and a euro for big companies; she appeared to decree that other nations would leave the euro at the same time as her France. She accused Macron of “submission to European federalism.”
The retort was swift. It was also devastating because the French, it turns out, are attached to the euro. Macron said the value of people’s savings would plunge 20 to 30 percent the day after a return to the franc. He asked how anyone from the producer of Cantal cheese to Airbus — small or large enterprises fully integrated in the European economy — would function once compelled to do their foreign transactions in euros and pay their employees’ salaries in francs. He predicted the return of capital controls as people rushed to get money out of the country.
Le Pen gaped at him, laughed inappropriately, fired increasingly wild and unrelated salvos, and generally seemed on the verge of total meltdown. It was the end. Europe had killed her. For any Europhile, and I proudly wear that badge, it was the sweetest of moments after a rough passage.
Le Pen had made a serious miscalculation. France, where the blue-and-gold European flag adorns many public buildings, is not Britain. It is a founding member of the European Union; the union still defines in many ways the aspirations of postwar France. As Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist, put it to me, “For Germany, the union was redemption. For France, it was ambition by other means after the World War II humiliation and decolonization.”
The Franco-German couple ran into trouble after the end of the Cold War because its balance was lost in German unification, but the shared commitment to the European idea remains fundamental to both countries. Suddenly that idea is recovering luster because Brexit has focused minds and because of what the French call the threat of “a new Yalta.”
In an interview with Le Monde, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a former member of the European Parliament, defined this 21st-century Yalta as “a Russian-American couple that does not hide its hostility to the union and to the independence of Europeans.” Trump, in his first visit as president to Europe, will face the widespread perception that he loves every dictator he meets but has a hard time with a European democratic leader, like Germany’s Angela Merkel. This in turn has inspired a sense that an opening exists for Europe to lead the free world in the defense of its values because America under Trump has abdicated that role.
Merkel is the favorite to win the German election in September. A Macron-Merkel duo could be formidable. They will have to deliver in several areas if Europe is to seize this moment. The first is security: the European Union needs effective external borders. The second is fiscal: the euro in the long run can only function with fiscal consolidation. The third is growth: Europe is already stirring from stagnation but needs to create more jobs, and for that Macron’s planned labor-market reforms will be important. The fourth is solidarity: the free ride of countries like Hungary and Poland that benefit from vast European Union financial transfers but flout European values through their growing autocratic tendencies must be stopped. It’s simple: no free money without a free press and an independent judiciary.
Macron and Merkel are both passionate Europeans (as is the Social Democratic contender in Germany, Martin Schulz). Putin’s threats, Trump’s valueless American foreign policy, and Britain’s small-mindedness — alongside an economic recovery that is gathering steam — have created a unique opportunity to rekindle the dream of a federalizing Europe. It could be that 2017 will be the year of Europe.
(The New York Times)