Jansen VanderMeulen '19
The first round of France’s presidential election takes place later this month, and the stakes are high for all of Europe. The first round is a free-for-all: eleven candidates from across the ideological spectrum will appear on the ballot. The two candidates who receive the most votes will advance to a runoff, the winner of which will be declared President of the Republic. In the face of miserable approval ratings, incumbent President François Hollande of the Socialist Party declined to seek re-election, setting off a wild, unpredictable race to take his place in the Élysée Palace. The French Presidency has rotated for decades between the center-left Socialists and the center-right Republicans of Mr. Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, whom Mr. Hollande defeated in 2012. Though bitter political enemies, the Socialists and Republicans are both pro-European Union, pro-NATO, and broadly agree on the secular, welfare-state model of post-War France.
Of the eleven candidates in the first round, the three thought to have the best chance of advancing to the runoff are Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN), François Fillon of the Republicans, and Emmanuel Macron, who is running a centrist campaign under the auspices of En Marche!, a political movement of his own creation. Ms. Le Pen, the daughter of notorious Holocaust denier and 2002 presidential election-runoff loser Jean Marie Le Pen, has taken the National Front from the despised fringes of French politics to its very center; the FN took first place in the last round of European Parliament elections, shocking the French establishment. The party’s platform is a sign of resurgent European nationalism. It calls for an eclectic mix of left-wing economic policies (protecting the treasured 35-hour work week and increasing pensions for the elderly) and right-wing populist foreign policy (holding a referendum to leave the EU and enforcing strict limits on immigration) that has proved popular with France’s depressed, ex-industrial north and its affluent, Catholic south alike.
Many observers (including your correspondent) thought, with the Socialist Party crippled and the left divided among many competing candidates, the best chance to stop Ms. Le Pen could be found with Mr. Fillon, a former prime minister in the government of Mr. Sarkozy with a right-wing ideology along the lines of that of Margaret Thatcher. That initially looked to be true; after he won the Republican nomination, polling showed that Mr. Fillon looked to be a lock to make the runoff. But a series of expense and personal scandals have dimmed his star. It is possible he will drop into fourth place behind the hard-left, perennial candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has outstripped the Socialist Party nominee, Benoît Hamon. Mr. Macron, a former economy minister in Mr. Hollande’s beleaguered government, has roared into the contest’s lead with a counterintuitive platform. While the nationalist-populist wave consumes Britain, the U.S., and threatens German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr. Macron has become the favorite to become France’s President on a familiar platform of further European integration, cuts to France’s bloated deficit, and labor market reforms. Though a former Socialist, Mr. Macron hopes to capitalize on Mr. Fillon’s ethical difficulties and curry favor with center-right voters uncomfortable with Ms. Le Pen’s radical platform, but unwilling to support a candidate of the hard-left.
So far, Mr. Macron’s “radical centrist” movement seems to be paying off. He leads several recent first-round polls, and he leads by a daunting margin in a hypothetical head-to-head contest with Ms. Le Pen. For a European establishment that just a few months ago faced the very real prospect of a President Le Pen, Mr. Macron’s rise is welcome indeed. Ms. Le Pen is a toxic figure to mainstream Europeans. Her association with her father’s neo-fascist party, her deeply-held animus to the European project, and her blatant xenophobia have long disgusted figures across the European political spectrum, but it is her newfound affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin that is causing the most recent consternation. Ms. Le Pen visited the Kremlin last month and has claimed she “admire[s]” the authoritarian adversary of the west. More threateningly, Ms. Le Pen has spoken approvingly of Mr. Putin’s aggressive annexation of Crimea and has called for Western sanctions imposed against Russia after the territory grab to be removed. Should Ms. Le Pen manage to win the French presidency, another of the key players in the Western alliance will be led by a friend of Mr. Putin’s.
Mr. Macron presents an entirely different path. Beleaguered and bruised by Brexit, the Trump election, and rising extremes on all ends of the political spectrum, the advocates of the European project see in Mr. Macron hope for a moderate, liberal future. Critics and allies alike have compared Mr. Macron and his movement to the center-left wunderkinds of the 1990s, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Mr. Macron does not hide his affection for the European Union or for globalization, both of which are fiercely criticized by the hard-left and hard-right alike. A Macron victory in May would give hope to liberal Europeans that, despite a recent spate of losses, their core projects remain intact. More than just hope, a victory by Mr. Macron could present liberal Europe with a roadmap for the future. Mr. Macron’s sunny, non-defensive, unabashed pro-Europe attitude is in stark contrast with battle-worn figures like Ms. Merkel or Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission. After liberal-conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s re-election in the Netherlands last month, a Macron victory could give liberal Europe its mojo back. With threats like an aggressive Russia, a disengaged America, and continued economic malaise, Europe’s leaders could use all the mojo they can get.