Emmanuel Macron, the political maverick and former French economy minister, defeated Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front with around 66 percent of the vote on Sunday. In doing so, he became the youngest ever president of France and the first with no previous experience as an elected official. His victory, as astounding as it was for an outsider candidate with only a fledgling political party, En Marche! (or Onward!), cannot merely be explained by the French population’s frustrations with globalization and terrorism. The reason lies deeper in France’s past than that; in fact, the story begins with the string of failed presidencies that the country has had to endure since the passing of the early epoch of the Fifth Republic, founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.
General de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French resistance forces during World War II who identified himself obsessively with his country, believed it could only be ruled by a strong executive president. He established the new republic in his image as France faced the threat of civil war from a military revolt in Algeria and amid the disintegration of the political establishment. The strong executive presidency was meant to bring a fractious nation together, rise above divisive politics, and enable France to become a global leader. The constitution that was adopted in 1958 made the French head of state an elected quasi-monarch, who was, on paper at least, the most powerful leader in Europe. And yet successive presidents have fallen well short of the Gaullist ideal of strong leadership.
Georges Pompidou, de Gaulle’s successor and prime minister, was an urbane former banker who lacked his predecessor’s historic stature, but easily won the 1969 election. He set the country on a more business-friendly course, allowing the United Kingdom to join what was then the Common Market. He was a pragmatist who lacked the charisma of his patron, de Gaulle, and cut political deals the general would have rejected. He died of cancer in 1974, and the Gaullists split at the subsequent election in a manner that went directly against the idea of rising above partisan politics.
When Valéry Giscard d’Estaing took the reins in 1974, the brilliant former finance minister introduced important social reforms and worked closely with West Germany. He had trouble holding together a ruling coalition with the Gaullists, though, especially during the oil crisis of the late 1970s. He was tripped up by his own sense of superiority on top of allegations of corruption, namely that he had accepted diamonds from an African dictator, Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (briefly renamed the Central African Empire between 1976-79). When he ran for reelection, the Gaullists, under the leadership of Jacques Chirac, offered only lukewarm support and the president was widely seen as having retreated from his initial reformist stance into a conservative defender of the elite.
François Mitterrand, whom Giscard had defeated in 1974, became the Fifth Republic’s first president from the left in 1981. A veteran politician who had held his first ministerial post in 1947, Mitterrand led the Socialist Party into an alliance with the still-powerful Communist Party and the liberal Radical Party. He arrived in the Élysée Palace with a radical left-wing economic program, in which major companies were nationalized, welfare payments were greatly expanded, and taxes were significantly increased. The ideas proved unworkable as inflation soared and the value of the franc plunged. Between 1983–84, the left lost local and European elections and the economic situation forced Mitterrand to reverse course. He soon adopted orthodox austerity policies that generated high unemployment. A consummate, unscrupulous operator, he manipulated the electoral system to help bolster the National Front and damage the mainstream right. Forced to appoint the neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac as prime minister after the opposition won legislative elections in 1966, he still achieved reelection in 1988, but his second term was marred by economic problems and scandals.
Jacques Chirac fared no better. He succeeded Mitterrand in 1995 and held the presidency until 2007. (The presidential term was cut from seven to five years in 2002.) His administration made its international mark by opposing the invasion of Iraq, but Chirac did little to improve life in France. He did not come to grips with the country’s economic and employment woes and neither did he address the growing tensions within immigrant communities that boiled over into major riots in 2005. It was only through rather unfortunate circumstances for his opponents that he won reelection in 2002. He received an overwhelming victory after the first round of voting pushed the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen ahead of the Socialist Lionel Jospin, who had run a poor campaign and had to battle an array of minor contenders splitting the left-wing vote. Chirac’s second term was a reprisal of his first, with little action to put right France’s growing economic and social problems. Meanwhile, across the Rhine, Germany launched a major program of reform that turned it into even more of an existential challenger as the leader of the European Union.
That finally brings us to more recent times with two one-term presidents. Nicolas Sarkozy came into office in 2007 after a career marked by a vigorous promotion of law and order as Interior Minister. His attack-dog style paid off, as did his promises of serious structural reform to the economy. But he soon fell short of his promises, constrained as he was by the conservatism of his supporters, a growing lack of will to battle vested interests, the international financial crisis of 2008, and his own reputation as a “bling” president who embarrassed the office as he and his wife, the former model Carla Bruni, partied with celebrities and the rich.
François Hollande, a long-time Socialist Party back-room manager, was next, riding to victory in 2012 on the back of Sarkozy’s extreme unpopularity and the impact of eurozone austerity on living standards. Hollande came to office pledging sweeping tax increases to pay for reflation, but this plan quickly collapsed, propelling him to veer between leftist policies of high taxation and increased public spending and right-leaning market reforms. His popularity plunged. It did not help that his personal life was also in disarray. He made headlines when he was caught riding on the back of a motor scooter between visits to his partner in the Élysée and his mistress down the road. His approval rating sunk to four percent at its lowest point. Although he reacted firmly to the wave of terrorist attacks that hit France in 2015 and 2016, the country felt under siege.
This catalogue of failures at the top of French politics explains the rise of non-mainstream candidates in this year’s presidential election. The exasperation that has been building for several decades has finally burst through and the two major parties have both shot themselves in the foot—the Socialists by picking a left-wing candidate who divided the party and the center-right Republicans by the scandals over allegedly illicit payments their candidate supplied to his wife.
In this way, Macron embodies the hopes of a new generation seeking to disentangle the country from the political straitjacket that has paralyzed past leaders. Although Macron represents the reformist establishment, he was the principal disrupter of the campaign. The question now hanging over France is whether Macron can set the country on a path of stronger and more focused leadership, capable of confronting the manifold challenges that it faces both at home and abroad.
The answer is, of course, unclear. Macron faces a big challenge in the parliamentary elections in June. His En Marche! party may be too new to win a majority of seats in the National Assembly. It says it will fight in all 577 constituencies, but sitting representatives of mainstream parties have deep local roots. The most likely outcome is a coalition and a working arrangement with the Republicans. They would not oppose Macron’s initial reform program aimed at liberalizing the labor market and making France more competitive while reducing the high unemployment rate.
In that vein, the new president may enjoy a brief post-election honeymoon, but the forces of the National Front on the right and the hard left, powered by the trade union General Confederation of Labor, known as the CGT, will be gunning for him with street demonstrations and a drumbeat of opposition. Macron is, after all, an insurgent who espouses reformist, liberal, pro-European views. He could set the Fifth Republic on a new and more positive course, but he has deep waters to navigate to set right the decline in leadership under his predecessors.