Voters in France go to the polls Sunday in the first round of balloting for their next president, a choice not only between candidates but between visions of the nation’s future. The outcome obviously will matter to France, but it’s also vital to the rest of Europe and to the United States.
Will France remain part of a united Europe — or will it pull back into itself, dealing a terrible blow along the way to the European Union? Will public disgust with acts of terrorism — most recently Thursday’s deadly attack on police on the Champs-Elysees — secure the presidency for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the repugnant National Front party who has denounced “Islamist globalization” and who has called for limiting immigration to no more than 10,000 people a year?
Le Pen, the daughter of the racist, anti-Semitic right-wing figure Jean-Marie Le Pen, is one of five major candidates for president and hopes to ride the same populist and nationalist wave that produced the Brexit vote in Britain and the election of President Trump in the United States. She tells crowds that “the French have been dispossessed of their patriotism. They are suffering in silence from not being allowed to love their country.” (It’s not that different from: “Make France Great Again.”)
The other candidates are Emmanuel Macron, a centrist former investment banker who served as economy minister for President Francois Hollande; Benoit Hamon, a socialist and former education minister; leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon of the France Unbowed movement; and Francois Fillon, a conservative former prime minister who was once a front-runner but who was formally charged last month with having arranged taxpayer-funded jobs for his wife and two of his children that they never performed.
If, as seems certain, no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote on Sunday, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff May 7. It’s possible that the runoff will feature a contest between candidates of the extreme right and the extreme left — Le Pen and Melenchon, who nevertheless share an aversion to the European Union of which France is a cornerstone.
Although Le Pen has pledged to renegotiate the terms of France’s membership in the EU and insists she doesn’t want “chaos,” it’s clear that her idea of European unity bears no resemblance to the current union. The EU — an audacious experiment to build a politically and economically integrated Europe after World War II — already has been shaken by the decision of British voters last year to withdraw from the union. But Britain was never as central to the EU as France was; Britain retained its own currency, for example, and never adopted the euro. France is a linchpin of the EU; its departure likely would wreck the union.
Melenchon, the leftist candidate who is running on an anti-austerity platform, regards the EU as a bastion of “neoliberal” economics and would have France remain in the union only if a “democratic reconstruction” of European treaties were negotiated. Hamon advocates changes in EU monetary policy and more democratic accountability. Fillon supports the EU, but objects to the union’s policy of free movement across the borders of member nations. Of all the major candidates, Macron is the most enthusiastic about France’s role in the EU. He has said that “we need Europe because Europe makes us bigger, because Europe makes us stronger.”
The outcome of the French election also has grave implications for the United States. President Obama was correct when he said, in the aftermath of Brexit, that the EU “has done so much to promote stability, stimulate economic growth, and foster the spread of democratic values and ideals across the continent and beyond” and that the EU has been an indispensable partner of the U.S.
The collapse of the EU would be a victory for the far right, a threat to peace in Europe, a catastrophe for desperate immigrants, and a repudiation of liberalism, integration and cooperation in favor of narrow-minded nationalism.
Asked recently about a Le Pen victory, Trump said merely that he’d never met her, adding: “It’s going to be a very interesting election.”
“Interesting” is an understatement. This is a crucial election, for France, for Europe and for the United States. We hope that, this time anyway, voters reject the politics of fear, division and nationalism.
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