Why are this spring’s French presidential elections so important to the United States and the world?
Typically, few Americans pay attention to elections beyond our borders, although Britain’s “Brexit” vote last summer was potentially a harbinger of Donald Trump’s election in November. Likewise, for most Americans who think about France, it is as a romantic tourist destination, an occasionally annoying ally, and a country whose language we studied in high school. And, for those very few who think more about French politics and policy, the picture is of a succession of lackluster, often corrupt leaders since before World War II, rigid regulatory policies that have hurt the French economy for more than 30 years, and some social policies—like the French health-care and child-care systems—that could be a model for the United States.
This year is very different. For Americans, and Brits and others—deeply disturbed by rising xenophobia and racism, the go-it-alone nationalism that sees other countries as enemies and free trade as harmful, and the rise of “alternative facts” and disdain for a free press—the French election could be a dramatic turning-point. For those who support President Trump and Brexit leader Nigel Farage, a victory by Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front leader in France, would be the third, and decisive, domino to fall in the overturning of the post-World War II order of liberal democracy.
In less than a year, the world has seen two of the world’s great democracies plunge into the chaos of populist nationalism, with Britain voting to leave the European Union and the United States electing Donald Trump as president. France—like Britain, the U.S., and other nations—has seen ascendant ethno-nationalism. All three countries have millions of immigrants, relatively sluggish economies, the threat of terrorism, and unpopular and scandal-tinged political elites. They also have right-wing populist leaders who are seething with anger and brimming with simplistic “solutions” to real and imagined problems.
France, too, has a viable presidential candidate who is a shake-things-up outsider; Emmanuel Macron, unlike Trump and other right-wing nationalists, is a staunch defender of political, social, and economic liberalism.
A charismatic 39-year-old former economy minister and investment banker, Macron is a centrist reformer who could free the French economy from its quasi-socialist dirigisme, while standing up to the extremism coursing through America and Western Europe. He might fit the mold of what was once called the “third way,” a center-left, business-friendly politics embodied by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, although Macron is edgier and somewhat to the left of both.
His strong support for the European Union and the Eurozone currency area may be all that stands between a potential “Frexit” and demise of the EU if Le Pen were to win the second round of the elections on May 7. Macron and his movement, En Marche! (On the Move) support free trade and openness to immigrants and refugees, and has denounced racism, homophobia, and misogyny.
Macron, who released a detailed platform today, wants to make the French economy freer and less state-dominated through deregulation, cutting corporate taxes, modernizing labor laws to combat high unemployment, and rolling back some of the country’s sprawling welfare state. While these positions have won him the support of French businesses, he also has called for making social benefits more universal, expanding preventive health care, more vigorous action against climate change, and for at least half of his movement’s local candidates to be women. At one rally, where a supporter shouted, “Women take power,” he slyly responded, “We’ll still have to keep a few men.”
Macron has made controversial remarks attacking anti-gay, religious voters, calling French colonialism a “crime against humanity,” and for U.S. scientists cowed by the Trump Administration to come to France, but he is free of the scandals hovering over his two principal competitors. Le Pen has allegedly used EU funds to pay her staff, despite her anti-EU diatribes. The third leading candidate, Francois Fillon, is a French RINO (reformer in name only) similar to so many center-right predecessors like Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, and faces charges of using taxpayer money to pay his wife more than $1 million for a job she never did. The key is for Macron to come in first or second in the first round of elections on April 23, after which he would be heavily favored to win the second round two weeks later.
Macron is just one percentage point behind Le Pen and four points ahead of Fillon for the first round, but polls suggest that he would crush Le Pen by at least a 20-point margin in the decisive final round. So, to place second or win the first round, Macron needs to hold his decisive lead in metro Paris and Brittany, and pick up votes either in Le Pen territory in the South or rust-belt North, or in closely contested areas like the Loire Valley, best known for its wines and historic castles. In short, a relatively small number of French voters may hold the future of Western values, Europe, internationalism, the mixed economy, and democracy itself in their hands.
If Macron, with the rock-star appeal of Barack Obama in 2008, can win in France, it could start to turn the tide against right-wing populism, making 2017 the year to remember and 2016 the year to forget.