Macron’s second mandate or a far-right victory would have consequences for Italy and Europe’s crossroad between centrism and populism.
The presidential election scheduled for 10 and 24 April 2022 is of considerable importance to France, but also to Italy and Europe.
For France, it will settle the question of whether Emmanuel Macron can secure a second term. In the history of the Fifth Republic, only François Mitterrand in 1988 and Jacques Chirac in 2002 have managed to do so. Conversely, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing failed in 1981, as did Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012, while François Hollande was in such a bad position at the end of his five-year term in 2017 that he chose not to even stand for election. Emmanuel Macron has a fairly solid base of voters, but he is also rejected by the left, the extreme left, the right and the extreme right alike, and is hated by a large segment of the French populace. The widespread and enduring Gilets Jaunes movement of 2018, which has long enjoyed broad support in France, has opened up a social fault-line that is still a long way from being properly patched up. If Emmanuel Macron manages to hold onto the presidency, he will be able to carry on with what he has started. On the economic and social front, for example, this would include his liberal-inspired reforms. But since these have been followed by massive spending in the wake of the Covid crisis, on the principle of “whatever it takes”, he will be forced to make decisions on sky-rocketing public debt (estimated at over 117% of GDP for 2021) and the widening public deficit (exceeding 9% of GDP in 2020). He has a full in-tray to deal with, including the pension reform that he has put on hold and that remains a hornets’ nest. “At the same time,” to quote the slogan from his successful election campaign in 2017, and which has become the mantra of “Macronism,” he has promoted left-wing measures on social issues and questions of collective memory, particularly in relation to the Algerian war and the genocide in Rwanda, which cause concern among certain segments of the public and to various minorities. Furthermore, on 1 January, France will take over the Presidency of the European Union. On 9 December, the President of the Republic clearly announced his priorities, which will form the agenda for the meetings of the 27 EU Member States, while also acting as a policy platform for the presidential campaign. They include strengthening European sovereignty, revising the Stability Pact, reforming the Schengen agreements, taking control of migration, fighting global warming, seeking progress on establishing a European defence force, promoting digital transition and extending European democratisation. These are all issues on which agreement will be difficult to reach, in view of the major differences of opinion between the EU Member States, especially in Central and Northern Europe. Emmanuel Macron is hoping he can count on the support of Italy, with which he signed the Quirinal Treaty in Rome on 26 November, alongside his friend Mario Draghi, with whom he shares a common position on many issues. Paris and Rome will try to win round the new German government, while also seeking the support of Madrid, Lisbon and Athens.
The outcome of the presidential election, however, remains uncertain. France is undergoing a major shift to the right, both in society and in terms of political offering. It is a racing certainty that the left has more or less no chance of election to the Elysée, because it is divided between multiple candidates and is suffering the worst poll ratings it has seen for decades. So the danger for Emmanuel Macron is likely to come from the other end of the political spectrum. If the far right were to win, under Marine Le Pen or the journalist Eric Zemmour, assuming the latter gets the necessary signatures to run, it would send shock waves through France and the whole of Europe, while sparking celebrations in Budapest and Warsaw, and galvanising Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni in Italy, along with other leaders of populist parties in Spain, Portugal and Northern Europe. This would take the European Union into a dangerous area of turbulence. If, by contrast, the candidate from the Republican right were elected, she would have to solve some serious dilemmas in very short order. Valérie Pécresse holds a combination of economically liberal and socially conservative views, but is pro-European. Or to be more precise, she was clearly in favour of the European Union. However, she will have to take account of the fact that some of her own voters and party activists not only hold strong views on immigration, security and identity, but are also still critical of the European Union in the name of defending French national interests. Valérie Pécresse will therefore have to walk a dangerous tightrope. Moreover, she will have to take account of French attitudes to the European Union. But the health crisis and the measures taken as part of the recovery plan have caused these to change. While highly critical of the EU, the majority of French people are still pro-European and strongly attached to the euro; they are also in favour of a European policy on the environment, migration and defence. All these considerations clearly limit the room for manoeuvre of any new occupier of the Elysée Palace who might be tempted to return to a policy of hard-line national sovereignty.
Conversely, if Emmanuel Macron is defeated and Italy elects certain political leaders who are somewhat hostile towards France, the Quirinal Treaty could become little more than a piece of paper without much future. That would certainly be true for the political and administrative elite, although civil society would still be able to carry on with the multiple collaborations that are already well under way. After François Mitterrand, Emmanuel Macron is the most pro-Italian President of the Fifth Republic. Unlike his socialist predecessor, furthermore, he does not merely express a cultural passion for Italy, he also aims to strengthen economic and political agreements with it, without letting this cast doubt on the pre-eminence of France’s relationship with Germany, which Italy does not dispute anyway. No other contender for the Elysée has the same characteristics or inclination. For Italy and Europe as a whole, therefore, the result of the second round of the French presidential elections, on 24 April, will dictate the shape of the future.