Friday, 28 April 2017

The Challenge Before French Voters -- Pull Up The Drawbridge Or Move Forward

BORDEAUX -- Very few elections offer voters a crystal-clear choice of policies. The presidential election in France next month is one of those rare occurrences. The two candidates in the final round offer polar-opposites of policies for surmounting the multiple challenges facing France as well as Europe. The choice couldn’t be more stark.

            In the first round of the presidential election voters swept away the sterile, failed policies of the traditional Left and Right parties who had ruled France for more than 60 years. The minute policy differences of these two groups were hotly debated among the chattering classes of Paris for decades while the rest of the country was left to stagnate in an economic morass.

            The first round on April 23 highlighted the new division in France. Instead of the old Left/Right construct France now has a sharp division between those favouring the so-called liberal world order with all its international institutions, global economic aspirations, human rights and freedoms that Europe has become used to. This camp thinks France is in a much stronger position to face global competition as an active member of the European Union than as an isolated, independent country caught between the huge forces of the United States, Russia and China. Opposing this are those who reject completely the liberal world order and who want to pull France out of institutions like NATO, the European Union, and the Euro. Their answer to France’s economic and social problems follows Trump’s recipe: pull up the drawbridge, cower behind high tariff walls, and – most of all – kick out all the immigrants.
            Why does all this matter? Why should anyone outside France worry about this election? Simple. France is a big country at the heart of Europe. A European Union without France is inconceivable. A revitalized French economy would be a huge shot in the arm for Europe as a whole. A re-confirmation of the values of human rights and equality in a country as central as France would send a clear message that Europe still firmly rejects the authoritarian, isolationist, and nativist policies of the extreme right.
Centrist Candidate Emmanuel Macron

             The centrist candidate, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, came out of nowhere to form a country-wide movement that propelled him to first place in the first round of the presidential elections. He is a former minister in the government of President Francois Holland, but left last year to start his own independent run with a new formation called En Marche! – Forward. He symbolizes the side of France that accepts the global challenges of the 21st Century and says France could clearly be on the winning side of those challenges. He is full of ideas for changing the stalled French economy, but these ideas involve changing the status quo in France – something that is very hard to accomplish in a country where traditions and fixed opinions are strong. In short, change is not something generally well received here.

            The extreme-right wing candidate, Marine Le Pen – otherwise known as Le Trump – says Rubbish to all that. She inherited the Front National leadership from her father who was one of the founders of the party. She has tried to change, without much success, the party’s racist, quasi-fascist, anti-Semitic image into pure, Trumpian social and economic nationalism. But sometimes the old image shines through as she whips up the crowd about restoring the Glory of France. The only ideas she proposes for accomplishing this ambitious goal are retreating rapidly from the global economy, leaving international institutions like NATO, giving up the Euro,  and throwing out all the immigrants. And along the way, she would cripple all international investment bankers – like Macron – whom she blames for France’s fall from power and glory.

Extreme Right Candidate Marine Le Pen
            In normal times Le Pen would never have a chance of winning the second round because the vast majority of votes from the losing parties would go to anyone opposing the National Front – seen by many as an affront to the sophisticated, socially responsible image of France. This would be a repeat of 2002 when Le Pen’s father made the final round, but was routed by conservative Jacques Chirac as even the leftist voters chose him over the National Front.

 But these are not normal times in a deeply divided country. If a large number of voters whose candidates lost in the first round decide to abstain rather than support a change advocate like Macron it is quite possible that Le Pen could sneak into the presidency.

            This danger comes from the fact that in the voters’ disgust with the status quo the extreme Left and the extreme Right accumulated almost 40% of the total vote in the first round. Despite their apparent contradictions very little separates the economic policies of both extremes. To them, issues like globalisation, international finance, or bankers in general are evils to be rejected at all costs. The extreme Left risks making the same mistake that the small splinter holier-than-thou parties in the United States made in 2016 when they took votes from Hillary Clinton and handed the presidency to Donald Trump. Many of France’s extreme left have said they prefer to maintain their intellectual purity by abstaining rather than voting for the hated globalisation they think Macron stands for. This electoral dilemma has driven the French café society into overdrive as everyone offers advice on what must be done. It remains to be seen just how much the French electorate pays attention to all this noise.

            French presidential election campaigns are mercifully short, and it will all be over on May 7. The French are also spared the tactics of Turkey’s ruler Tayyip Erdoğan. It’s a relief to be in a country where political opponents and critical journalists are not thrown in jail, newspapers represent every political point of view, there is equal time for the candidates, and – most important – there is no threat of rigging the results. Regardless of the outcome, we should all be grateful for free and fair elections. Experience in Turkey shows they can never be taken for granted.


Christine said...

Let me start by saying that I am French so I have been following the campaign quite closely and cast my vote last Sunday. A lot is being said and written about the collapse of traditional parties and the rejection by French voters of the old order. It's the first time that neither of the large parties is represented in the second round. But without "Penelopegate" I am very sure that Fillon would be facing Le Pen next Sunday instead of Macron and things would have been business as usual (as in 2002). Fillon managed almost 20% of the vote even after falling from grace. To my mind, the situation isn't the result of French voters rejecting old ideas, it just shows that many couldn't bear to vote for a man strongly suspected of large scale fraud and being put under investigation. Macron was the only other acceptable candidate. I very much hope that Macron wins, but I'm not optimistic about his chances when it comes to dragging France forward. France and real reforms just don't go together. Sadly!

David Edgerly said...


Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree, Fillon actually did better than I thought he would. Nonetheless, it is a new chapter in French politics. However, even if Macron wins his real challenge is just beginning. Can he govern? A lot depends on the legislative elections in June. Will he be in a position to govern, or will he be reduced to a figure head in a cohabitation with powers in the parliament? A Le Pen victory is not out of the question. But if she wins all bets are off. My question is just how did Macron achieve so much, so fast. Who encouraged him, who supported him, and who financed him? Is it mainly the old Parti Socialiste cadre who realized that the traditional PS had no chance whatsoever and jumped on Macron's bandwagon?

David Edgerly

Christine said...

It is a new chapter in French politics, absolutely. I will put my head above the parapet and say that Le Pen will NOT win on Sunday, especially after last night's Grand Débat. Of course I agree that the legislative elections will be decisive. I'm not sure how Macron, without the support of a well-established party, can get any kind of majority. Your questions about his meteoric rise are very valid. Will he fall back to earth as quickly as he ascended? The next few years will be very interesting in Europe, to say the least.
And I want to say again how much I enjoy reading your pieces. In fact I often wait eagerly to hear your view on events.