France is approaching its most divisive elections in decades. Zuzia Whelan explores whether the future of the EU hangs on the result.
It has been a tumultuous few weeks in French politics. Eggs and insults have been hurled.
This Sunday, all eyes will be on France, as voters return for the second round of presidential elections, where Emmanuel Macron will face Marine Le Pen.
Between Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the world will watch as far right politics once again clash with the centre.
Macron took the lead in the first round, with 23.75 percent of the vote, while Le Pen secured 21.35 percent.
Projection polls for this Sunday’s round estimate victory for Mr Marcon with 61 percent of the vote compared to 39 percent for Ms Le Pen.
In the past, French elections were usually a run-off between the centre-right Les Republicains, and the leftist Socialist Party, making this year’s election revolutionary.
The results of Sunday’s vote will be fraught with meaning, not only for France, but for all of Europe.
The two candidates disagree on many points, but the fate of France within the EU is a particularly sharp bone of contention.
On Monday, Ms Le Pen symbolically stepped down as leader of her party, The Front National, to focus on her campaign in the wake of the first round of voting.
Marine Le Pen speaks at a Front National gathering in 2012, with her father in the background. Image credit: Blandine Le Cain
While the move made headlines, her decision can be regarded as an attempt to remove herself further from the party’s controversial roots with her place at the top safe if she loses the presidency.
Le Pen rejects the term ‘extreme-right,’ though the Front National is still associated with a staunch anti-immigration policy, economic protectionism and conservative social values.
In 2015, she expelled her father, also the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen for comments he made about the Holocaust, in a process she termed “de-demonization”.
While Ms Le Pen is softening her image, Mr Macron is riding the wave of relative ambiguity.
This is surprising, since Mr Macron was, until last year, Minister for the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs under current president Francois Hollande.
Mr Hollande ended last year with an approval rating of just 4 percent, having alienated supporters and prominent groups with his policies including the introduction of a 75 percent top tax band.
Mr Macron is young, elegant and somewhat untainted by his political past. His party En Marche! is only a year old, making him effectively an independent with no major party backing.
He pitches himself as a maverick, and takes risks in his overtly pro-EU, pro-immigration, pro-international business stance. He welcomes technological innovation and cultural openness.
This openness is a hallmark of Macron’s campaign, and though his critics would call his politics ill-defined, his policies are so different to Ms Le Pen’s that it hardly seems to matter.
In contrast, the erstwhile charismatic Le Pen sees the salvation of France in closed borders, stymied foreign trade, a referendum on leaving the EU, and the return of a new and improved franc.
She favours protectionism and nationalism; he is the great proponent of globalisation.
In very different ways, both candidates tap into the restlessness and dissatisfaction in France under an unpopular president, a 10 percent unemployment rate and the threat of further terrorist attacks.
Emmanuel Macron, French Tech Night 2016 as Minister for Economy. Image credit: Business France
The fate of the EU
EU policy still remains the issue with the greatest cross-border political momentum, though it’s by no means the largest element of either campaign.
Disenchantment with the union has long been brewing within its member states, and it makes sense that it would come to a head now, in a cloud of political turmoil.
Euroscepticism often stems from the belief that the EU system weakens the sovereignty of independent states and that it’s a threat to nationalism.
Macron/Le Pen debate: France has never witnessed such a brutal political confrontation in real time. https://t.co/btNfon12UG pic.twitter.com/l9JpQg0NlX
— New York Times World (@nytimesworld) May 4, 2017
It would be very easy, now, to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
A politician’s view on EU membership and policy has become shorthand for their stance on a range of issues; notably the economy, immigration and defence. David Cameron’s stepping down over the Brexit vote being a prominent example.
If Le Pen were to win, her EU policy could be disastrous for Europe, potentially collapsing the body from within, and immersing it in economic crisis.
Conversely, Macron could be a lifeboat for the sinking union. A former banker, and economic minister, he knows a thing or two about business.
The model of a two-tier European Union has been bandied about, allowing more member states but with greater flexibility to engage with its policies to different degrees.
In this way, the certain sacrifice of sovereignty could be eased and staggered. It would be a longer-term solution, requiring patience and logic, as opposed to emotion and populism.
The global political landscape is now characterised by divisions of right-left, open-closed etc. When that momentum comes to a halt, we may well seek the refuge of imperfect and reliable familiarity.
Macron is part of the political elite. He is an ex-banker, socially liberal and his politics are moderate, but his economics are practised.
The political trajectory of Macron, if he keeps his promises, could go hand in hand with a revival of the EU, were a more flexible model implemented.
In the current climate, Macron could be the true vote for rebellion. He embodies the supreme risk of putting your faith in something familiar and broken, but with the potential for great change.
Feature image: French presidential elections, April 9th 2017. credit: Jeanne Menjoulet