Analysis - Political Transformations

New Actors Old Tricks

Implications of the French Presidential Elections

Writer : Dr.William Gueraiche

Thursday, May 04, 2017

New Actors Old Tricks

The 2017 French presidential election marks a shift in the history of the country. Since the implementation of the Third Republic in the 1870s, French politics have been fluctuating between the opposition of right-wing and left-wing parties. For the first time, the representatives of the two main parties (François Fillon for the Republicans and Benoît Hamon for the Socialist Party) arrived respectively third (20.01 percent of the votes) and fifth (6.36 percent). The two leading candidates Emmanuel Macron (24.04 percent) and Marine Le Pen (21.30 percent) compete in the second round on May 7, 2017. 

The Candidates

The election implied the failure of the traditional left and right ruling political parties, whose administrations have been holding power alternatively. Over the last two decades, their policies seem to have converge, giving the impression that neither is an alternative to their counterpart. The increasing confusion of the voters has paved the way to the rise of a radical programme (Marine Le Pen) and an attempt to overcome the opposition of right-wing and left-wing principles. 

The emergence of Marine Le Pen, chief of the National Front, takes place in a European context of populism, coinciding with the rise of other right-wing representatives including Victor Orban in Hungary, Matteo Renzi in Italy, Norbert Hofer in Austria or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to name a few. Yet the origin of her movement dates back to the fascist factions of the 1930s in France. The ideology represented by the National Front was discredited after WWII, but regained momentum from the 1990s onward. The National Front has capitalised on the identification of three evils that undermine French society. First, immigration is a solid cornerstone of the National Front discourse. According to their views, migrants, particularly Arabs and Muslims, jeopardise the identity of the country and should be expelled. Second, an ‘elite’ of technocrats, are supposed to divert the creation of wealth towards those who already have patrimonial privileges. Third, Europe, meaning the European Union, both the institution and the federal idea, epitomizes the betrayal of the elite, which transferred sovereignty to Brussels. 

On the other side, Emmanuel Macron claims that the opposition between right-wing and left-wing is obsolete. He created a ‘movement’, En Marche -‘Let’s go’, corresponding to his initials E.M.- founded on April 6, 2016 that rallies ostensibly to overcome the sterile political debate. However, the En Marche political platform is not new. Emmanuel Macron’s career also shows that there he was not innovative, but rather he had ambition to make politicians from various backgrounds ally with him. He was a member of the Socialist Party from 2006 until 2009, and his policies as the Minister of Economy and Finance (2014-2015) were very liberal. In a nutshell, this young homo novus in politics seeks consensus in public life, similar to the drive in Germany in the face of the traditional opposition of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). 

France at the Center of the World

Perhaps even more currently than during the previous presidential campaigns, the foreign policy dimension has been completely forgotten, not only for the run-off candidates, but also for the eleven other participants. However, the relationship with the European Union has been a key issue during the campaigns. In the wake of Brexit, the French public opinion wonders if the EU concept is still valid, not to say beneficial to France in general. However, instead of a knowledgeable and forward-looking debate on the future of the EU, some candidates, like Marine Le Pen, have argued to follow the footsteps of the United Kingdom while some others, like Emmanuel Macron, have suggested to deepen the partnership with the European members. 

Europe is therefore a bone of contention between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. The first wants to regain the French sovereignty, which implies an exit from the EU. If she is elected, she pledges to organize a referendum duplicating the Brexit model. Should the outcome mirror that in Britain, it would be the end of the European Union. No wonder that Vladimir Putin has been one of the main supporters of Marine Le Pen. Emmanuel Macron has projected an opposing view on the EU underscoring the economic relationship between France and the Union boosts the prosperity of the country.  To placate the public’s growing patrimonial tendencies, he has offered an antidote, which reforms the image and the machinations of the EU; for the euro zone, the EU parliament should vote a budget and an appointed Minister of Economy should lead the common economic policy. En Marche and its leader are also tempted to favour European protectionism with the implementation of a ‘Buy European Act’ (half of the production should be located in Europe). 

Collective security is the second main difference between the two candidates. Marine Le Pen stated that she would withdraw France from NATO. The rationale behind this decision is that France should not be involved in conflict that it has not generated. This is not the first time this claim was raised. The first president of the Fifth Republic, Charles De Gaulle, set a precedent in 1966. Nicolas Sarkozy reintegrated France in the organization in 2009. To balance the country’s lack of military capabilities, Marine Le Pen plans to increase the budget of defence – without detailing how she would carve a budget for it. Conversely, Emmanuel Macron believes that collective security should be restricted to France. Probably to counterbalance NATO and its uncertain future under the administration of Donald Trump, as well as the British withdrawal from the EU, En Marche plans to reinforce a military partnership with Germany. All other states would be invited to build up a European fund for defence through common projects such as the European drones. In addition, a permanent European headquarter would be created. This idea is not new either. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the founders of the European Community tried in 1954 to start the European Community of Defence. Since that time, they have collaborated on projects such as the Eurocopter. 

All things considered, the political continuities prevail in the platforms of the candidates. Yet, if Marine Le Pen were to be elected, the organization of a referendum would be a turning point, and would presumably be the end of the Union in case of her victory. 

Looking Eastwards

Neither candidates has presented innovative ideas in foreign policy. It means that the same realist policy towards the GCC states and Iran will continue. 

For two decades, the different administrations have made no secret about their diplomatic agenda, which is to help French companies maintain their market shares and gain new markets. Therefore, economic diplomacy comes first. In this regards, the Arms industry is a powerful lobby. Last year, it won contracts worth USD 15 billion. In the Gulf, their main competitors are the Americans and the British. In the meantime, French companies are also exploring the potential investments in Iranian markets and the development of Central Asia.  These two policies are not necessarily consistent. Yet, because both candidates have no programme for the Gulf region, it is likely that the diplomatic network will try to sustain friendship with economically viable countries across the board. The appointment of top diplomats, after the election will also be a good indicator of the evolution of the future of foreign relations. To make it simple, there are two main types of diplomats, those who give priority to the security issues and those who favour the ‘policy of influence’. Advocates of security would reorient the guidelines more than those who favour influence. 

That said, politically charged upheavals plague French society are central to the overtones of the election campaigns. Social discontent and anxiety has been climbing since the rise of radical Islam in France. France has been, after Tunisia and Russia, the main supplier of jihadists in the Levant. To eradicate, at its roots, French Islamism, Emmanuel Macron plans to control the education of the Imam in France. The identity of the National Front is another factor. This xenophobic party has targeted the Arab population, meaning second or third generations of French citizens born of Maghrebian parents. For the National Front, the youth from the ‘banlieues’ (suburbs) are associated with criminality. In addition, it perceives Islam as a core threat for the national identity. The election of Marine Le Pen would inevitably create a rift between France, traditionally a country of immigration, and the Arab world in general. 

In a period of uncertainty, it is difficult to foresee the outcome of the second round. Even if the polls predict a victory for Emmanuel Macron, the precedent of the Brexit and the election of Trump makes one cautious against a certain political forecast. Almost all major candidates of the first round (except Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left-wing, who let the voters decide) have advocated for Emmanuel Macron. The scenario will be different from 2002, when the father of Marine Le Pen competed for the second round in the presidential election. Emmanuel Macron, like Jacques Chirac at that time, expects a Republican mobilization to contain the threat of a far right-wing party. Nevertheless, disillusion has been widespread among the French electorate, disappointed with the last administrations as well as with the overall mediocrity of the candidates during this campaign. 

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