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