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French Elections Put World on Watch

Feature image credit: ABC News US

This weekend is set to put France and much of Europe on tenterhooks. The country goes to the polls again for the second round of voting in their presidential election  later today (AEST). Results should be due from about 8 p.m. Paris time – Monday morning for Australians. The election between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen is promising to be one of the most consequential in modern French history, which could have ramifications for the post-WWII European Project.

This election has gained a larger amount of international attention than usual;  it has been seen in the context of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, and as part of a longer battle between Liberal Cosmopolitanism and NationalismIt comes at a consequential time for the European Union aftermath of their debt and Syrian refugee crisis, though Brexit negotiations, temporarily suspended due to the surprise election called by Prime Minister Theresa May.

The second round follows the first presidential voting held on April 23. For the first time in 50 years, French voters rejected the main centre-left and centre-right parties, favouring outsiders. Support for the unpopular Incumbent President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party collapsed with just under 7% of the vote. Centre-right Francois Fillon too was clouded by scandal. Hard left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon was one of the surprises, gaining nearly 20% of the votes in the first round, and much of the Socialist Party’s former base.

This is the first time that the far right party National Front has been in the second round of voting since 2002. Incumbent Jacques Chirac comprehensively defeated Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. It was the largest margin in French election history, with Chirac gaining over 82 per cent of the vote.

In the last five years, France has been marked by a series of terrorist attacks, notably in Paris in November 2015. This has prompted questions about the pace of Islamic immigration which the National Front have campaigned hard on. Furthermore, this election comes at a time where the French economy has been weak and fragile after the Eurozone Crisis. This was the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, and was responsible for decimating many smaller members of the Eurozone, namely Greece. Furthermore, since 2008, there’s been a rise in the support for far right nationalist and populist movements, in the same vein as National Front.

Marine Le Pen has succeeded in professionalising the far-right party, making it appeal to the broader French electorate. She had famously expelled and condemned her father in 2015 after making holocaust denial comments. Interestingly, though, Le Pen has been criticised for softening her traditionally hardline stance on the European Union, playing down the parties vow to leave the Euro. France is heavily integrated within the European Framework and is thus more difficult to untangle from without economic ramifications. Though, some realism has sunk in as she tries to appeal to centre-right and elderly voters, who are fearful of losing their savings under the present currency.  She has also campaigned hard in working class communities, similar communities which voted for Brexit and Trump.

Polling has shown a trend that Emmanuel Macron is expected to win some 60% of the vote. Although campaigning as neither left nor right, Macron has been described as a centrist, socially liberal, and in favour of market reform. A former Rothschild banker, Macron was President Hollande’s Economic Minister. He then left the government and the Socialist Party to start his own, called the En Marche! Movement, a movement that he describes as neither left or right. He successfully casted himself as an outsider figure, and has been endorsed by all major presidential candidates, barring Mélenchon. If elected, he would be the youngest President of France, at 39 years old.

In a last minute intervention by Barack Obama, the former US president ran television advertisements, saying that “the success of France matters to the entire world”.

If Macron is to be elected, Britain could expect a harsher line from France in EU Negotiations. However, if Le Pen is elected, the European project would be placed in question; exit from the Union is one of Le Pen’s stated goals. Moreover, it is National Front policy to leave NATO. Le Pen has also expressed interest in improving France’s relations with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

These foreign policy differences are important. Macron is a strong globalist and supportive of the liberal world order, as well as institutions like the United Nations. Le Pen, who identifies as a nationalist, would place an emphasis upholding French sovereign interests, especially in regards to immigration, and emphasise individual relationships between nations, rather than institutions (think Trump’s America First style foreign policy applied to France).

Russia is a particularly sensitive topic given the experience of the US election. Like in the United States, social media accounts have been flooded with fake news, much of it suspected to be of Russian or Eastern European origin in the days leading up to the first round of voting.  Such news sites were blamed for perpetuating false information against Hillary Clinton and conspiracy theories in favour of Donald Trump.

In a last-minute twist 48 hours before Sunday, Macron’s campaign account was compromised. The timing has caused some suspicion. This incident sure put a spanner into the works in the final hours of the election. Nevertheless, Macron has performed strongly in the last week of campaigning with a win over the election debate against Le Pen.  

American pollsters Fivethirtyeight has been adamant that the 60-40 polling difference in favour of Macron has been repeatedly consistent for months.

But Brexit and Donald Trump told us nothing is as certain anymore.

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