On Sunday, May 7, 2017, France made history. Mr Emmanuel Macron, 39 years, was elected President of France, the youngest ever in French history. Macron’s election represents a long-awaited generational change in French politics where the same faces have dominated for years. He will be the youngest leader in the G7 major industrialized nations and has consequently elicited excitement and comparisons with youthful leaders such as late John F. Kennedy of the US and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. In a way, his election demonstrates the disintegration of the political establishment as is known there, since he neither belongs to the right nor left but centre.
It has taken only three years for Macron to rise from being an unknown government adviser to be elected France’s youngest Head of State. Many attributed Macron’s stunning rise to a deep yearning for a fresh face and fresh approach coupled with a rare message of optimism in a country that has long been obsessed with national decline. The unexpected collapse of many mainstream opponents certainly played a part but Macron had also gotten the luck to seize his chance, by applying his skills as a deal-making investment banker to the world of politics.
He resigned as economy minister in August 2016 after only two years in thatr position and tapped into widespread disenchantment to propagate a strong anti-establishment message. “France is blocked by the self-serving tendencies of its elite”, he told supporters at a rally in the southern town of Pau. “And I’ll tell you a secret”, he added, lowering his voice: “I know it, I was part of it”. Born in Amiens, in the northern rustbelt, to a family of doctors, he describes in his campaign book “Revolution” an idyllic childhood spent “in books, a little removed from the world”.
At age 15, he met his future wife Brigitte, who was his drama teacher – 24 years his senior and married with children. Their unusual relationship has elicited a lot of media coverage. After school, he worked as a research assistant to the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. He joined the civil service after finishing near the top of his class before a four-year stint working in mergers and acquisition for the investment bank, Rothschild. After Rothschild, he joined Hollande’s staff in the Elysee in 2012 and it was not long before he became economy minister. In government, Macron set about attacking some French “social model” such as 35-hour working week, job protection and the civil service’s culture of jobs – for-life.
Macron, who sleeps little and is often seen online on the Telegram messaging service at 2am, says his ambition is to bridge the left-right divide that has long dominated French politics. Yet when he quit the government last August to build up the political movement he had founded only four months earlier, many never gave him any chance. But, with the ruling socialists in disarray and the centre-right’s candidate, Francois Fillon, mired in a financial scandal, Macron emerged in pole position.
Macron has continued to confound opponents and pundits by building up huge grassroots support and winning endorsements from defecting centre-left and centre-right politicians. Far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, whom he defeated after an acrimonious run off campaign, scornfully dubbed him a “smirking banker” on a rancorous TV debate. In a final put-down, when Le Pen attempted to interrupt his summing up, Macron told her: “You stay on TV. I want to be President of the country”.
Both Macron and Le Pen cast themselves early on as outsiders who are far removed from the established parties that have ruled France for decades. Although Macron’s young party, En Marche! doesn’t hold any parliamentary seats the centrist president-elect has vowed to field candidates for all 577 of the chamber’s seats, pledging not to make “back room deals” with other parties and insisted on putting forward a diverse pool of candidates, half of whom he said would be new to politics. It’s an ambitious goal that polls suggest Macron may be able to pull off.
In this year’s French presidential election, a lot was at stake and has naturally generated keen interest globally. France is the second nuclear power and UN Security Council member in Europe, the other being Britain. After Brexit by UK and the threat by Le Pen for a Frexit, the whole Europeans experiment was at stake during the French election. Le Pen was a Europhobe while Macron was a Europhile. The rest of the EU are heaving sigh of relief with the election of Macron by at least two-thirds of the French electorate. After all, the UK Brexit vote last year is still fresh and the consequences are still unfolding in Europe and even globally.
For us here, the French election is also of great importance. Not only is Nigeria surrounded by former French colonies, France is the only European power that keeps interfering in African affairs such that late Prof. Ali Mazrui once said when South Africa was under apartheid that France is the competitor of Nigeria for African continental leadership. After the role of France in Libya, Mali and the Sahel region it is only natural that Nigeria takes special interest in what happens in Europe in general and France in particular. There are exciting times ahead. History is on the side of the oppressed.