This article was first published on The Commentator.
On April 23rd, France went to the polls. In the first of two rounds of the country’s Presidential election, the French people selected En Marche’s Emmanuel Macron and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen to progress to the final round vote this Sunday, May 7th.
François Fillon (The Republicans), Jean-Luc Mélenchon (France Unbowed) and Benoît Hamon (Socialist Party) were all eliminated.
Fillon, from former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, received 20 percent of the vote. The right-winger and early favourite struggled after he was accused of making fraudulent payments to family members. Mélenchon, a far-left candidate who received 19.5 percent of the vote, unexpectedly gained popularity towards the end of the campaign, but, unfortunately for him, it was not enough.
Hamon, meanwhile, never had a chance. Representing the deeply unpopular party of current President François Hollande, he received a derisory 6.3 percent of the vote.
The two successful candidates, Le Pen and Macron, will go head to head on Sunday. Macron is the clear favourite, being the more moderate candidate. Despite the presence of a mainstream candidate in Macron, this has not been plain sailing for the French political establishment.
This is the first time neither of the two main parties have made it to the final round since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958. Polling also suggests around one quarter of eligible voters will abstain in this second round. This unusually high figure shows many voters – especially Mélenchon’s supporters – are dissatisfied with the remaining options.
Macron has attempted to brand himself as a political outsider in an attempt to mop up anti-establishment votes – something which he must have been quite successful in doing, considering the fact he won the first round ballot with 24 percent of the vote.
But in reality, he is no such thing. He is essentially a ‘third way’ politician – a pro-EU, vaguely left-leaning centrist ‘moderniser’ like Tony Blair.
Macron achieved his anti-establishment status by simply setting up his own party, but neither his background nor his policies are anti-establishment. Macron’s policies are virtually indistinguishable from what has gone before, and his CV is about as establishment as it can get.
After graduating from the École Nationale d’Administration, a sort of feeder school for the French civil service, he worked as a civil servant, a banker for Rothschild & Co, and finally as a senior figure in President Hollande’s administration.
There is no doubt about Le Pen’s anti-establishment credentials – but she is certainly a controversial figure, to say the least. In 2011, she took over as leader of the National Front from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Jean-Marie, who founded the party, has been fined numerous times for various racist and anti-Semitic statements. Most infamously of all, he has repeatedly called the Holocaust a “detail” of history.
Marine Le Pen, who received 21 percent of first round votes, has tried to ‘de-demonise’ the National Front. She has tried to distance herself from the more extreme remarks of her father, who was expelled from the party in 2015. Many, however, remain unconvinced, pointing to her hardline policies on immigration and Islam, and to the continued presence of some far-right extremists in the party.
In a further attempt to moderate her image, Le Pen has now temporarily stood down as the National Front’s leader.
A major driver of Le Pen’s support has been her Euroscepticism. Le Pen supports abandoning the Euro and returning to the Franc, and intends to renegotiate the terms of France’s EU membership before holding an In/Out referendum. Her stance stands in stark contrast to Macron’s Euro-enthusiasm – he would prop up Schengen, create a ‘Eurozone Parliament’, and impose an EU-wide tax on financial transactions.
Macron is likely to win on Sunday. Though his lead has dipped slightly since the first round, he remains consistently around twenty points ahead in the polls – and the usual suspects would hail this as a ringing endorsement of European integration. But nothing could be further from the truth. Macron’s potential victory would have nothing to do with his pro-EU policies, and everything to do with the simple fact he is not Marine Le Pen.
In the first round, about 46 percent of votes were cast for clearly Eurosceptic candidates (Le Pen, Mélenchon, and minor candidates François Asselineau and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan – the latter has been unveiled as Le Pen’s choice for Prime Minister). Fillon, who took a softer line on the EU while still demanding the return of various powers to the Member States, received a further 20 percent.
Dissatisfaction with the European project in France is at an all-time high. It may be only a matter of time before the French people, like the British people before them, realise the only way to ‘reform’ their relationship with the EU will be to leave the bloc.
What will these elections mean for Brexit? Le Pen would probably be sympathetic towards Britain, but her victory would throw the EU into such chaos it is difficult to tell how it would affect negotiations. The EU could seek a quick and amicable deal, hoping to get Brexit out of the way in order to focus on France. Alternatively, they could drive an even harder bargain, for fear a good Brexit deal would embolden Le Pen.
Macron, meanwhile, has taken a tough line, believing a Brexit deal must deter other Member States from following us out. However, a victory for him could (wrongly) lead EU leaders to stop worrying about other countries leaving, reducing the incentive for them to ‘punish’ Britain (something they have no actual power to do anyway).
Additionally, one of Macron’s key advisers, Jean Pisani-Ferry, has authored a report calling for a close post-Brexit relationship between Britain and the EU.
As we Get Britain Out of the EU, each election on the Continent will have major implications for Brexit, and for the EU as a whole. It may be difficult to tell what effect either candidate’s victory would have on Brexit talks, but the lesson for the EU should be clear.
If they want to prevent further exits, then the fantasy of ‘punishing’ Britain will not help. They must initiate real reform and start repatriating powers to the member states.