By Gaétan Perdoux
France will soon choose a new president in one of several elections in Europe that could change the face of a continent that is reeling from Britain’s decision to quit the European Union and a surge in populism that is calling into question the post-war world order.
The stakes are high for Europe, its common currency and geopolitics as voters in France, Germany and the Netherlands prepare to elect leaders from among candidates who include far-right, nationalistic politicians keen to steer the continent away from the policies of convergence that have prevailed since the end of World War Two.
France votes in two rounds, on April 23 and May 7, to select a successor to President François Hollande, a Socialist who decided not to launch a re-election bid that, according to opinion polls, would have ended in a crushing loss.
Rather than risk humiliation, Hollande read the tea leaves at the tail end of a five-year term marked by party infighting, a lackluster economy and the resurgence of a center-right and far-right opposition following terrorist attacks and the inflow of large numbers of immigrants.
Since Socialist François Mitterrand was elected president in 1981, the nation’s highest office has alternated between establishment parties on the center-right and center-left. But this year two outsiders who augur change — one from the far right, the other an untested centrist candidate — lead the pack.
Polls suggest that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, and Emmanuel Macron, a former government minister under Hollande who is running under his own banner, could place first and second in the initial round and then head to the second-round run-off.
Mainstream voters are expected to hold their noses in the May 7 ballot and support whichever candidate faces the fiery Le Pen, whose father was trounced in a run-off against Jacques Chirac in 2002 when citizens locked elbows to bar from office the leader of a party that rails against immigrants, the EU and the euro currency, and which warms to Russia.
Le Pen could face a wall of opposition in a second round.
Macron, a 39-year-old investment banker who served as Economy Minister from 2014-16 before pulling out of a Socialist government to focus on building a following, would hew more closely to France’s traditional policies of supporting the EU and the euro.
But he has balked at releasing a detailed program, although on Thursday he announced some policy proposals related to pensions, privatizations and the number of elected officials.
What is more, there is no assurance — especially not after the twin shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s win in the U.S. presidential election — that Macron will make it to the second round or, if he did, that he would beat Le Pen, a populist who disparages both the EU and the euro, and who would take a tough line against immigrants.
In France’s two-round system, if no candidate obtains a majority on the first ballot, the top two candidates proceed to a second round.
If, as expected, Le Pen makes it to the runoff, she could face the kind of tactical move that doomed her father in 2002 when voters on the left and right who supported opposing candidates in the first round joined forces to ensure the National Front standard-bearer did not win the nation’s top job.
The other main candidates are former Prime Minister François Fillon of the center-right Republicans party, Socialist Benoît Hamon and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Once the front runner, Fillon has been caught up in a political scandal involving his wife, Penelope, who allegedly was paid for fake jobs. A neo-liberal, Fillon has promised the kind of free-market reforms, albeit diluted for French consumption, of ex-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Fillon’s pledge to slash state jobs has given Le Pen a chance to offer a social program she hopes could lure wary centrist voters away from the former prime minister.
Will voters disillusioned with the establishment hold the key?
Once well outside the mainstream, the National Front has toned down its rhetoric and under Marine Le Pen sought to portray itself as a responsible alternative to the old guard.
But Le Pen would ditch the euro currency and has promised a Brexit-like referendum that she hopes would pave the way for France’s own departure from the EU. Neither of those policies is supported by mainstream parties.
Macron has promised to bring flexibility to the French economy without going as far as Fillon, but it’s not clear how much support he would enjoy in parliament as an outsider.
Hamon and Mélenchon both adhere to more traditional Socialist policies, with Mélonchon outflanking Hamon on the left. But with the Socialist Party in the dog house after Hollande’s much maligned tenure and the two candidates unable to forge an alliance, neither has much chance of getting to the second round.
With outsiders Le Pen and Macron leading the polls and the National Front candidate favoring France’s exit from the EU, there is more uncertainty and anxiety about this election than at any time since the Fifth Republic was created in 1958 under General Charles de Gaulle.
And with many voters disillusioned by mainstream parties on both the left and the right, one cannot rule out a victory by the Eurosceptic National Front.
The stakes, then, are particularly high because if France ever pulled out of the EU, the bloc could well crumble without the support of one of its founding members.
Gaétan Perdoux is a second-year student at King’s College London studying European Politics. He is passionate about Europe’s different languages and cultures, politics, and digital affairs. Gaétan is President of the KCL European Society and organizes conferences, panel debates and cultural exchanges throughout the year. He also enjoys reading and swimming.