The European Union is breathing a little more comfortably after the first round of presidential elections in the French Republic. The two highly controversial and surprising political shifts of 2016—the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America—loomed very high over France as voters headed to the polls on April 23rd. Political analysts have seen a troubling rise of populism as the main underlying cause of both Trump and Brexit, and thus there are valid reasons to worry that a similar situation could be seen in France. Thus far, this does not appear to have been the case; however, the French election system calls for a runoff election that still needs to be held on May 7, and there are valid concerns about voter abstention.
The runoff candidates have been chosen, and neither are true socialists. Emmanuel Macron, candidate for the En Marche! (March On!) party, is seen as the current favorite to succeed President Hollande; Marine Le Pen of the National Front, a populist party that steers very far to the right, does not have much of a fighting chance unless abstentionism takes hold and a Trump-like situation unfolds.
The New Faces of French Politics
The French Republic of the 20th and 21st centuries has been considered a bastion of socialism and a shining example that politically moderate leaders can be very effective in terms of keeping democracy alive, reaching out to the people and managing resources as well as capital. The strong sense of pride and nationalism that French people are known for has not required assistance from the extreme ends of the political spectrum. For many decades, the far left and the far right have been seen with suspicion by French voters; however, political attitudes are changing.
Macron is considered to be a liberal candidate whose style of governing would favor the European Union, but would also encourage more capitalism and not so much government control. Le Pen, on the other hand, leads a party that could easily appeal to the American voters who elected Trump. The National Front runs on an anti-immigrant, anti-EU and “France First” platform that has attracted voters who are more attuned with racism, Islamophobia, and extreme nationalism. Le Pen is a fan of Brexit and a proponent of exiting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a sentiment that US President Trump used for his political campaign but has since abandoned.
Although Macron is considered to be a strong front-runner, it is important to note that Le Pen was only three points behind him in the first round. Furthermore, more than 10 million French voters abstained; should this situation repeat itself on the final day of voting, France could be headed towards an American-style political surprise. Should Le Pen get 40 percent of the runoff vote, France and Europe should be concerned about the rise of populism. In the US and in the UK, populism has thus far not worked out too smoothly, and these two countries have just embarked on this political journey. Having a third world power governed by a populist streak could be a problem in terms of international trade, welfare, and the delicate geopolitical balance.