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In a country where the ‘left-right’ political divide first originated, neither candidate for the upcoming French Presidential election hails from traditional political parties. Yet, the divide between President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is perhaps one of the most extreme in France’s political history.
Macron and Le Pen pose strikingly different visions for France: whilst Macron wants to take France forward, Le Penn wants to bring France into the past. With the first round of the Presidential election placing Macron only a few points ahead of Le Pen, the French people are deeply divided over the future they want for their country.
Macron, a former finance minister under Socialist President Francois Hollande, skillfully presents himself as a political newcomer, yet simultaneously experienced and trustworthy. His centrist project under the new political party La Republique en Marche served to be refreshingly personal, with the branding ‘en marche’ having the same first initials as Macron, the leader of the party. The name of Macron’s party encompasses his very vision for France, roughly translating to ‘on the move’. Macron promises that under his leadership, France will continue to go forward, and progress to a better, brighter future. His centrism allows for a clever combination of the most effective of the left-right ideologies; his economic stance combines support for the welfare state and a belief in individual responsibility.
Whilst this image secured him a decisive victory in 2017, Macron’s fresh appeal has become significantly tainted. From gilet jaune protests to the COVID-19 Pandemic, President Macron has faced a political term of crisis and turmoil. Macron has faced harsh public opposition to some of his most central policies, such as protests against him raising the age of retirement. This was met with the longest public strikes in France since the 1960s.
Macron’s most loyal supporters argue that due to these crises, Macron has been unable to make more radical, progressive changes promised in his first election campaign. Another vote for Macron, for many, allows Macron to pursue his plan for France without things getting in the way. Yet, for those that have suffered under his first term, Macron’s promises are less than persuasive. His five-year plan to reduce unemployment levels has gained little support, with the general feeling that Macron is not doing enough to respond to the current cost-of-living crisis.
Within poorer areas that voted for the third-highest candidate, socialist Jean-Luc Melenchon, a switch of allegiance from voters is hardly guaranteed. There appears the danger that without significant backing for a left-wing candidate anti-Macron voters will vote for Le Pen, or abstain from voting at all. For these voters, Macron’s focus on greater European integration will not be a solution.
Le Pen’s Campaign
Le Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen has not only become a consistent voice of the far-right in France, but one of the most prominent populists in Europe. Le Penn’s rhetoric has historically targeted those that feel in on the fray of modern French society. Populist cliches of a mythical ‘golden age’ and frequent promises to retain French sovereignty reflect more common themes of the Populist wave that has swept Europe in recent years. Although some may claim that Le Pen has been saying the same thing for decades, it is undeniable that her particular anti-globalisation stance and policies will gain more attention now, than ever before.
For over a decade, policies embroiled in blatant anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia have continued to be at the forefront of Le Pen’s vision for France. Despite an attempt to soften her party’s image in recent years, political commentators claim that the “meat and bones” of Le Pen’s party have remained the same. Le Pen plans to ban headscarves from being worn in public places and says she would hold a referendum on reinstating the death penalty. More recently, Le Pen’s campaigns have capitalised off the cost-of-living crisis, with economic policies such as greater protectionism and more domestic energy production echoing Trump’s Make America Great Again.
In a bewildering turn of events, Le Pen is no longer the most extreme of the far-right candidates in this Presidential election. Far-right journalist and commentator Eric Zimmour, who has been found guilty of hate speech, secured a small 7% of the vote share in the first round. This share of the votes will almost certainly go to Le Pen in the second round, which will prove crucial in closing the already small gap she has with Macron. Beyond polls, Zimmour’s even more controversial stances on Islam and outward admiration of Vladimir Putin have benefited Le Pen, presenting herself as more moderate and neutral to voters. This combination of a mere few points behind the current President, a guaranteed electoral gain in the following round, and the current political and economic climate have created a perfect storm for a possible Le Pen victory.
The Future of the EU
Internationally, a victory for Le Pen would be another dark day for European cooperation. She has been a long-standing critic of the European Union, recently describing it as “anti-democratic and threatening”. Reports of Le Pen’s plans for France to form alliances with increasingly authoritarian Poland and Hungary demonstrate a shift in alliances across Europe. A further loan from Hungarian Banks which has funded Le Pen’s current campaign echoes a similar loan from a Russian Bank in 2017. Although she has openly condemned their invasion of Ukraine, Le Pen opposes the use of economic sanctions due to its impact on French workers. From her support of Victor Orban alone, it is clear that Le Pen will go on to favour the most dangerous leaders of Europe. What is certain is that the future of France, and indeed Europe, will be dramatically different under her Presidency.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Dickens’ famous opening and closing line of a Tale of Two cities sums up a similar tale of French politics: the tale of two very different futures. For Europe, Le Pen’s victory will only further legitimise the dangerous messages of European Populism on the global stage. Europe has proven itself to be capable of responding to crises, but without the political weight of France, it is uncertain that any cooperation will take place in the near future.
France is at a crossroads, and the decision voters make in the upcoming Presidential election will also serve to deeply affect the political future of the European Union. Le Pen is promising only isolation and disintegration, at a time when stability and cooperation for Europe are so desperately needed.
By Ruth Lucas,
Ruth is a second year Politics and International Relations student and Deputy Editor of the IPPR. She is interested in Comparative Politics, with a particular interest in European Politics and Populism.