Will France Follow America? A Review of the French Presidential Election

After the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, all eyes are on the upcoming French presidential election. The top four candidates are Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN), Benoit Hamon of Partie Socialiste (PS), François Fillon of Les Républicans, and Emmanuel Marcon of En Marche! (EM). These four candidates, along with several others, will face off in the first round of voting held on 23 April. With only two months before the election, several of the campaigns have faced scandal and scrutiny. For French voters, public attention has been primarily focused on the big issues: unemployment (the French unemployment rate is currently 10 per cent – with little improvement under François Hollande), national security, and the role of France in the European Union.

Marine Le Pen is the leader of the far-right political party, le Front National. Her campaign manifesto echoes themes of the party including ‘national sovereignty, law and order, anti-immigration, and anti-elites.’ The candidate is infamous for her anti-immigration and xenophobic rhetoric. During a speech in Fréjus, Le Pen linked immigration to the question of national identity. She claimed that mass immigration is causing a ‘civil war between communities’ in France. The manifesto proposes a plan to ‘cut legal immigration to 10,000 ‘entries’ a year.’ Le Pen also holds a strong anti-EU stance. She wants France to leave the Schengen zone, which allows freedom of movement within the EU, and to reinstate a national currency. These proposed policies are in line with her nationalist, anti-globalisation rhetoric. She supports both Brexit and Trump claiming that this is the beginning of a ‘new world order.’ ‘With Brexit, people made the choice for border control, re-industrialisation, economic patriotism, intelligent protectionism. The United States has chosen the same by electing Trump’, she stated in an interview. Although she aligns herself with Brexit campaign and the Trump government, Le Pen’s anti-immigration and xenophobic rhetoric have caused outcry from many foreign leaders. She recently sparked controversy in Lebanon during a recent trip when she refused to wear a headscarf before meeting Lebanon’s top Sunni Muslim religious leader. Le Pen’s policies do mirror the nationalist, anti-globalisation campaigns of Brexit and Trump, which is why they are sparking fear amongst the French public and across Europe. She is also expected to make it through the first round of voting, increasing fears that France will follow the likes of Britain and America.

Joshua Veitch-Michaelis

Image courtesy of Joshua Veitch-Michaelis, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Benoît Hamon of the centre-left party, le Parti Socialiste was former Education Minister under President Hollande until he left the office in 2014. Hamon has been likened to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn because of his liberal policies and beliefs. His manifesto includes ‘reducing the working week from 35 to 32 hours, tax robots, and providing a monthly universal basic income for all.’ He is also outspoken on his desire to legalise marijuana and supports renewable energy investment. However, due to differences among left-wing parties, (some consider Hamon’s policies too liberal), it is not expected that he will advance beyond the first round of voting.

François Fillon of Les Républicans earned the party nomination, beating former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. He was former Prime Minister under Sarkozy between 2007 and 2012. His economic policies are influenced by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in that he ‘call[s] for an extension of the retirement age, seeks to slash benefits, scrap the 35-hour work week, and cut 600,000 public sector jobs in order to fund tax breaks for companies.’ However he differs from Thatcher with ‘his reluctance to privatise state companies.’ The politician is also known for his socially conservative views such as ‘staunch opposition to equal marriage and adoption rights for LGBT couples.’ Fillon was expected to reach the second round of voting but a recent scandal involving his wife Penelope has surrounded the campaign. Penelope and Fillon are under investigation ‘over reports she was paid 500,000 euros over eight years’ for a parliamentary job she did not do. Since the scandal broke, ‘61 per cent of French voters have a negative or very negative view of [Fillon], while the proportion of positive views […] plummeted to 39 per cent from 54 per cent.’ The practice of nepotism during Fillon’s career has caused his drop in popularity, giving rise to En Marche! candidate Emmanuel Macron.

Macron served as economy minister under President Hollande in 2014 until he resigned in 2016 to begin his presidential campaign. En Marche! is a centrist party that calls for a ‘democratic revolution’ and promises to ‘unblock France.’ His economic policies include to get rid of the ‘35-hour work week for younger workers while at the same time making it easier for businesses to lay workers off.’ He also is determined to ‘increase state spending on schools in areas where there are large numbers of migrants.’ He is determined to change France’s current economic/social system that ‘has created deep inequalities by favouring mostly insiders, those with a permanent job contract and stable employment … everyone else has been left aside.’ Macron, contrary to Le Pen, is supportive of the EU. In a recent trip to London, Macron met with Prime Minister Theresa May saying ‘not to expect any favours from the European Union during Brexit talks.’ In a speech he gave, attracting French expats in London, he stated that, ‘our country cannot succeed without Europe.’ Polls suggest that Macron and Fillon are tied behind Le Pen before the first round of voting.

With recent elections in the United States and the Brexit vote, France’s election demonstrates similar trends of a far-right politician against liberal, cosmopolitan ideals. Marine Le Pen is currently leading in the polls yet it is unlikely that she will win the second round of voting. Currently the polls indicate that either Francois Fillon or Emmanuel Macron will become the next president of France. But as the elections in Britain and the United States have shown, polls can often be misleading. As the election draws closer, we will see whether or not France will follow suit favouring a tough nationalism over liberalism.