Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche!, or "Onwards!," and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, attends a campaign rally in Chatellerault, France, April 28, 2017.
Regis Duvignau / Reuters

Emmanuel Macron, France’s former economy minister, who led the first round of presidential elections on April 23, will very likely be the Fifth Republic’s next leader. He is widely expected to win the May 7 runoff against Marine Le Pen of the National Front and after his reasoned performance at yesterday's presidential debate, he is up in the polls with 63 percent of viewers finding him the "most convincing" candidate. But his victory, as unprecedented as it would be for the centrist candidate who has never held elected office, will not necessarily give him governing power.

France has a hybrid constitution whereby the regime is presidential like that of the United States when the president’s party holds a majority of seats in Parliament, and parliamentary like that of the United Kingdom when it does not. Given the parliamentary election, which involves 577 constituencies, is set up to favor the established parties, Macron’s newly formed party En Marche! (or “Onward!”) stands little chance of winning more than a small fraction of seats in June. This means that the center of power for the next five years will fall not to the president but to the prime minister. 

Several times in the 1980s and 1990s, the president sat idle in his palace, with no sovereign authority, while the prime minister, coming from the opposition party, conducted the affairs of the state. A semi-fictional satire, Les Saveurs du Palais, depicts President François Mitterrand, twice the victim of such a scenario, or what the French call cohabitation, languishing in the Elysian palace as a potiche (literally “decorative vase”), whose only political fight, which he loses, is to retain his well-staffed kitchen. His tormentor, then Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, would later, as president, meet the same fate in 1997 after a badly called election, leaving him politically impotent for five years. To avoid a repeat, Chirac amended the constitution in 2000, aligning the terms for president and Parliament to five years each, with quasi-simultaneous elections. Voters were expected to choose their executive and legislature in the same breath, from the same party. Since then, it has worked, but En Marche! will face an uphill battle. 

Two parties, one Gaullist (right of center) and the other Socialist (left of center), have dominated French politics since the birth of the Fifth Republic in 1958. And although the presidential post will elude them for the first time in nearly six decades, the two traditional parties will retain their grasp on the legislature. All the commentaries about seething resentment among the electorate and the growing appeal of populism miss the point that, in France, far-right Le Pen surpassed two men that the public found dull and corrupt. But her luck ends there. The Brexit and Trump votes were one-round shockers. The French Presidential election takes two rounds, allowing enough time for a rally against an extreme right abhorred by an overwhelming majority of the French. It would take an improbably low turnout for Le Pen to get even close to her opponent, Macron, in the final. The parliamentary election that will follow in June is a district-based, two-round ballot biased in favor of established political parties. Electoral leakage to National Front and En Marche! from the two mainstream parties will be far less than what occurred during the presidential vote. 

Modern media sometimes allow young, attractive, eloquent figures to project themselves far and above the mass of more experienced politicians. Macron, like President John F. Kennedy in his time, and President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau more recently, captured the popular imagination and inspired voters. But legislative elections are local, dreary low-profile affairs. It takes experienced political machines to get the votes, district after district. Unless those machines were to defect en masse to Macron’s movement—and there is no sign of that happening—candidates running for En Marche! will struggle. 

In this regard, it seems that the Republicans, the Gaullist party, are positioned to lead in the parliamentary elections. After five years of a highly disappointing socialist administration, the electorate wants to punish the Socialist Party, whose candidate in the presidential election scored an abysmal six percent of the votes. By contrast, the Republicans have swiftly turned the page on their troubled candidate, François Fillon. It is generally accepted that the scandals were personal, not institutional, and despite his flaws, Fillon scored an admirable 20 percent in the first round, only one percent less than Le Pen. Polls now suggest that even though the Republicans may not carry an absolute majority of the seats, it is poised to be the leading party in the next legislature. That will place legislative and executive authority in the hands of a center-right prime minister. So who are the likely candidates?

The presidential campaign, starting with the primaries, proved that there was a strident rejection of the old Gaullist leadership, which includes former President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, and Fillon. Fillon’s defeat opens the door for a younger generation of leaders from the Republicans to take over the party and claim the prime ministership. The contenders are educated and experienced technocrats, with impeccable pedigrees. François Baroin, 51, has held several prestigious ministerial portfolios and was first elected to the Parliament in 1993. Laurent Wauquiez, 42, is an attractive figure who has won difficult elections for the party, and served in several ministerial positions. However, given the importance of gender parity in French political culture at the moment, and given the necessity to stand out against Macron, a woman may be more suitable for the task.

A daring choice would be Christine Lagarde, a former finance minister who became managing director of the International Monetary Fund in 2011. Like Macron, she is a political outsider who has never run for office—she had a successful career as a lawyer before appointments in government. Highly regarded among Europe’s leaders for her actions throughout the euro crisis, respected by the French, and 21 years Macron’s senior, she would be able to easily impose her authority. But Lagarde, bruised by a fraud scandal not of her own making but that occurred while she served as finance minister, may prefer to stay away from the grind of French politics.

In any case, the battle among the Gaullists for the prime minister’s seat, generally a step toward the presidency, promises to be brutal. Lagarde is only one of several ambitious, competent women brought into government during the Sarkozy administration. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, known as NKM, made a bid for the prestigious mayorship of Paris in 2013, and ran against the old guard in the recent presidential primaries. Although brilliant, an engineer by training, her abrupt demeanor may have lost her those two elections and may disqualify her for top positions. The name that comes up more and more frequently among Gaullist voters is that of Valérie Pécresse. Like Macron, Pécresse is a graduate of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, is economically liberal and pro-Europe, and has shown great reformist ambitions during her five years in government, first as minister of education, then as minister of budget. Ten years Macron’s senior, she also has more political experience, both as a party apparatchik and as a member of Parliament since 2012. Although she lacks Largarde’s stature and does not have the grit of NKM, her smoother personality may be the best suited to jostle with Macron.

Of course, holding the reins of power will not automatically elevate the prime minister above a president brought to office by the popular vote. Charisma still matters. Macron is a political newcomer whose appeal is personal and without comparable precedent. His biography is now well known. A technocrat, impeccably trained in the best French tradition, and a former investment banker who married his onetime high-school teacher, Macron surged on the political stage when he became minister of economy in 2014 at the age of 36. Pragmatic, pro-European, and sympathetic to free markets, he is not easily identifiable with either the left or the right, an ambiguity he cultivated by declining an affiliation with the Socialist Party while serving in a socialist government. Macron’s novelty, his youth, and his mild antiestablishmentarianism distinguish him from a tired clique of politicians many have lost faith in.

But his status as an outsider will also be his limit. The prime minister, over whom Macron will have no real institutional authority, will draw power from his or her party’s control of the legislature. In an ideal partnership, the center-right prime minister would push much-needed reforms through the Parliament, and Macron would use his charisma and energy to sell those reforms to the people. But in politics, the best-case scenario rarely comes to pass. With similarity comes the risk of intense and paralyzing rivalry. Macron may have no real power, but as president he could thwart the prime minister by issuing constant criticism of his or her actions. Mitterrand, in his first cohabitation with Jacques Chirac, had become quite adept at undermining his prime minister in anticipation of winning the next presidential contest—which he did, and his party was then able to then put Socialist Michel Rocard in the prime ministership. Even if the president and prime minister were to get along, their cooperation would confirm the perception, among leftists and unionists, that Macron is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and that his social posturing was nothing but a pretense to cover a liberal economic agenda. Shunned by the left, irrelevant to the right, Macron could endure an empty presidency. Following the disappointing administrations of Sarkozy and Hollande, condemned for failing to reduce unemployment and to prevent dramatic terrorist attacks, the French Republic could face five more years of stasis. 

The challenges that await France’s leaders are daunting. Domestically, France is in need of structural reform. Despite its potential—the French are well educated and highly productive—the country has been under-performing for decades because of a heavy fiscal burden and overregulated labor markets. Past governments have continuously struggled to effect significant change because the reforms that would stimulate growth and create jobs are almost systematically killed by massive popular protest. On top of those longstanding domestic issues, Macron and his new prime minister will have to tackle Brexit, the euro crisis, and the security challenge imposed by the new U.S. administration’s desire to pull back from NATO. Pushing European integration forward at this time requires a partnership with a strong France and an even stronger Germany.

Macron has already earned the respect of political and intellectual leaders across the Rhine, where elections will be held in September. Both contenders to that election, the long-standing Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the former President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, are mainstream politicians with a robust commitment to the European Union. It is likely that, come fall, the German chancellor and the French head of state and government will share an agenda that favors strengthening Europe, improving productivity and competitiveness in the global economy, and extending a helping hand to those left out by globalization or displaced by foreign wars. But if their ideologies align, the quality of their relationship is yet untested. It will take France’s June parliamentary election and several months of cohabitation to figure out whether the new leadership in Paris will be in rather toxic mode for the next five years, or whether it can provide impetus, alongside Germany, for real change in Europe.

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  • CAMILLE PECASTAING is Senior Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
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