Carolyn Walsh ’17
Opinion Co-Editor Emerita
In the grand scheme of modern global politics, a presidential election in France might seem insignificant or even mundane compared to the dire situation in Syria and the chaos that is the Trump administration. However, the contest between the centrist and pro-Europe Emmanuel Macron and the far-right and xenophobic Marine Le Pen has the potential to be far more consequential than most Americans might think.
When French voters go to the polls on May 7, how they choose between Macron and Le Pen could very well inflict the same kind of political upheaval in France as the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election has done in the U.S. Moreover, if Le Pen claims victory, it could mean the end of the European Union and the current international order as we know it.
What is going on in France is almost eerily similar to what transpired during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Like in the U.S., the presidential election in France has been a serious test for the country’s political establishment—and one it has so far failed.
The French election process consists of two rounds of voting. The first round consists of voters casting their ballots for the candidate of their choice from a list of all qualifying candidates. As it is extremely rare for an individual candidate to receive over 50 percent of the overall vote in the first round, a second round of voting is held as a runoff between the top two candidates. Whoever wins this second round becomes the next French president.
The first round of the 2017 election was held on April 23, and not one candidate from the traditional center-left and center-right parties came close to getting the majority of the vote. Rather, the former investment banker and independent candidate Macron and Le Pen of the far-right National Front are headed into the runoff on May 7.
Again, to parallel the U.S., Macron, the “safe” and Clinton-esque candidate, has been showing promise over Le Pen in the most recent polls. Overconfidence among French anti-populists looking at these trends is understandable. However, something similar to the overwhelming shock felt in the U.S. after Trump’s win has great potential to happen in France.
Le Pen and her National Front Party have been at the forefront of the resurrection of far-right politics in Europe. Le Pen’s ability to take advantage of a divided and disillusioned French electorate should not be underestimated. A National Front victory has the real potential to destabilize Europe and to shape France into a protectionist, xenophobic, and neofascist state.
In contrast to Macron, Le Pen wishes to leave the European Union, abandon the Euro, and reinstate the French franc. If such a “Frexit” were to happen, the European Union and the dream of a unified Europe would be dead.
With last year’s Brexit, France and Germany remain the largest powers sustaining the EU; a French withdrawal would be a mortal wound to a system that has more or less provided political and economic stability to the continent for decades.
Le Pen’s policy attitudes toward immigration represent a whitewashed form of the kind of xenophobia that defined the National Front’s controversial past. Although she has succeeded in making this antagonism toward immigrant populations more mainstream, it is no less extreme and harmful—she wishes to ban all net immigration and reform France’s welfare state so that the bulk of spending is directed toward French citizens.
In the effort to “make France great again,” Le Pen has made it clear that the best future for France is one that caters to a narrow, nostalgic vision of French culture and “Frenchness”—one that marginalizes the voices and lives of those who come from different cultures.
The French people have a serious task ahead of them. On May 7 they will have to choose whether or not to reject the dangers close-minded, populist, and xenophobic politics. Let’s just hope they don’t make the same mistake we did.