Return of the Europhiles

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Emmanuel Macron won a commanding majority in France's parliamentary election on Sunday. Source: Reuters

For Europhiles in Germany and across the continent, the outcome of France’s marathon elections are almost too good to be true.

Just a couple months ago, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, arch nemesis of the European Union, seemed poised to enter the Élysée Palace and deliver on her nationalist vow to bring down Europe’s common institutions.

But France did not follow Britain and the United States down the nationalist path blazed by the Brexiteers and Donald Trump’s supporters. Instead, the forces of liberal reform led by Emmanuel Macron won a resounding victory, securing virtually all the levers of national power in Paris.

In the wake of his decisive presidential victory, Mr. Macron and his reform movement, Republique En Marche, have won an absolute majority in the National Assembly, according to projections, sweeping aside the old guard Republican and Socialist parties as well as the insurgent National Front in one of the greatest  upsets in the history of the Fifth Republic.

Only 43 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots on Sunday, the worst turnout in the history of the republic.

The 39-year-old president, the youngest French leader since Napoleon, and his nascent party have won around 361 seats out of 577 total, an incredible feat for a political movement that did not even exist a little over a year ago. Ms. Le Pen’s National Front won just 8 seats: better than predicted after the first round.

Looking strictly at the balance of power in parliament, Mr. Macron will have wide latitude to implement his comparatively laissez-faire economic reform agenda, which includes liberalizing France’s notoriously rigid labor market, a revolutionary development in a nation that takes pride in its strong social protections for workers. Indeed, the largest opposition party will be the conservative Republicans, who also advocate pro-business reforms, while the left has been decimated.

And on the east bank of the Rhine, Mr. Macron’s close partner, Chancellor Angela Merkel, also appears on track to win Germany’s federal elections in September. After a rough start to the campaign season, Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats now stand at nearly 40 percent in the polls, a commanding lead in Germany’s multi-party system.

Come autumn, then, Europe will likely have two staunchly pro-EU leaders in Paris and Berlin who are determined to re-energize the Franco-German partnership, the historic motor of European integration, and re-vitalize a battered European Union. But there are pitfalls ahead.

Though Mr. Macron won a decisive victory, his political revolution is being carried by a relatively small vanguard of voters. Indeed, only 43 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots on Sunday, the worst turnout in the history of the republic. The president could run afoul of France’s silent majority if he goes too far with his reforms.

And Mr. Macron’s proposal for a common euro-zone budget divides Germany’s coalition government. Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, in particular Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, are skeptical, while the center-left Social Democrats, the junior coalition partners, strongly support Mr. Macron’s reform agenda.

As much as Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel have expressed mutual support and admiration for each other, the chancellor has also drawn red lines. In May, for example, Ms. Merkel offered to do what she could to help Mr. Macron reduce France’s stubborn unemployment rate, but said she saw no need for Germany to change its policies in the euro zone, a reference to Berlin’s controversial support for austerity.

There is still plenty of time for the continent’s Europhiles to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: s.kimball@handelslbatt.com.

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