By Robert Holloway
The stakes in France’s election this spring could not be higher.
When French voters elect their next president on May 7, the fate of the European Union, of the euro currency and of a decades-long push for continental integration will be in the balance.
Some economists believe that, depending on the outcome, the global economy could wax or wane.
The vote in France — a country of 67 million people — comes less than a year after Britain decided to leave the EU. Brexit will reduce the bloc’s population by 65 million, or 13 percent, and its economy by around $3 trillion dollars, nearly one fifth of the EU total, according to World Bank estimates.
Should France ever decide to follow suit, it could well spell the end of the world’s largest trading bloc, of the single currency euro and of an evolving set of international political and economic agreements that has helped guarantee peace in Europe since the end of World War Two.
“Make France great again.”
Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, hailed the British vote – the first by a member state to leave the EU – and said that if she wins the presidential election, she will organize a referendum within six months to enable France to do likewise.
“The British have chosen independence,” she told a campaign rally in September. “We French can become a free, proud, independent people and restore France’s place in the world.”
Words that echoed Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America great again.”
In an interview with the newspaper Le Monde earlier this month, Le Pen described Trump’s election as “the death certificate of ultra-liberalism, an economic system imposed on us for 35 years with the connivance of our leaders.”
Like Trump, Le Pen wants to impose import tariffs and to curb immigration. And she wants to reinstate the French franc.
Circumstances have changed.
The conventional wisdom is that, although Le Pen is credited with about 25 percent of the vote in the opinion polls, more than any other candidate, she has no hope of election because of France’s two-round voting system.
In the first round on April 23, voters will chose among some dozen candidates. Five are considered serious contenders. The top two will face each other in a second round two weeks later. Polls suggest Le Pen would be routed in the run-off.
Many commentators have noted that in 2002, when her father Jean-Marie Le Pen – the founder of the National Front – unexpectedly made it to the run-off round, he was crushed by the then president, Jacques Chirac.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, a sharp-tongued demagogue who has been convicted several times of anti-Semitism, was so widely disliked that 20 million extra voters rallied to Chirac, giving him 82.2 percent, the biggest landslide in French history.
But circumstances have changed.
Fillon’s ratings soared — until mid-January.
Unlike Chirac, the current president, François Hollande, is not seeking re-election. And Marine Le Pen has sought to make the National Front respectable. Last year she had her father expelled from the NF after he repeated statements dismissing the historical importance of the Holocaust.
Until last month, the only candidate who seemed capable of crushing Le Pen was François Fillon, who handily won the primary election in November of the conservative Republicans movement.
Fillon, who held several ministerial posts during Chirac’s 12-year presidency and served as prime minister for five years under Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, is the most politically experienced of all the candidates.
In contrast to other prominent Republicans, including Sarkozy, who has been ordered to stand trial for alleged illegal campaign financing in 2012, Fillon projected an image of honesty and virtue. He insisted on financial probity and emphasized his Roman Catholic faith – important in a country still divided over gay marriage.
His ratings soared. Until mid-January when the satirical weekly Canard Enchaîné disclosed that Fillon had employed his wife as a parliamentary assistant for several years and that she had held other well-paid jobs for which, the newspaper alleged, she had done little or no work.
Two contrasting views of Europe and France’s place in it.
Fillon has said he did nothing illegal, but he has admitted to an error of judgement and apologized to voters. Now, he is in third place in the polls, behind Emmanuel Macron, a centrist former minister of economy and finance.
In conventional political terms, Macron is an outsider. He set up his own party in April last year and later resigned from the Socialist-run government to run for president.
Both the Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, and the far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon have more experience in government than Macron, and both are polling in double figures.
Macron, moreover, is only 39, nine years below the age at which Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in 1974, became the youngest French president of the 20th century.
Macron is unconventional, too, in that he is the only candidate who seems positively enthusiastic about the EU, although he does talk of the need for reform.
If the polls are correct and Macron faces Le Pen in the decisive round of voting, there could not be two more sharply contrasting views of Europe and of France’s place within it.
Robert Holloway is News-Decoder Editor. A British-born French citizen, he had a long career at Agence France-Presse as a journalist and editor before becoming director of the AFP Foundation, the international media training arm of the global news agency. He joined AFP in 1988 and served as Sydney bureau chief, foreign editor, head of the English desk in Paris, United Nations correspondent in New York, deputy managing editor and acting editor in chief.