Let’s Be Careful About France – OpEd

Predictably, pro-EU, managerial Emmanuel Macron and far right Marine Le Pen moved on to the second round of French elections. In a historic result, none of the major parties, the Socialists, as well as the Republicans went to the second round, in what could be a historic first since the second world war. The socialist candidate of President Hollande’s party got only 6 percent votes, as his votes were divided between Macron and far left candidate Melenchon, who was another outsider, who won around 19 percent votes, similar to what the center right republican candidate Fillon got. Both Fillon and the Socialist candidate Hammon promptly endorsed Macron, and pointed out that far right is the biggest threat to French unity. The far left candidate, Melenchon, refused to endorse anyone.

Macron’s policies, are as most of the readers already know, fairly centrist and neoliberal. Contrary to what the media is trying to portray him as, he is as establishment as it gets. He is an investment banker by profession, and believes in reforming the market which includes controversial statements like changing French work hours as well as French taxation and French retirement plans. Macron is pro EU, extremely managerial, and pro immigration. The country is fairly divided, with almost half supporting Macron, and the top right half supporting Le Pen.

Le Pen is of course on her traditional right wing nationalist populist rhetoric. She is trying to market herself as an independent resigning from her party, but no one is buying it. She wants to “kill” the EU, cut off immigration, ban the Islamic Burqa and Mosques and forge a more nationalistic path for France. In fact the flurry of support for Macron from the republicans and the socialists only help Le Pen bolster the claim that she’s the only true outsider here in the race. While Macron wants to shape the race as one between centrism and populism; Le Pen is shaping it as one between patriots and globalists. She aims to kill Macron’s reputation as an outside who started his own party barely three months back, instead she wants to paint Macron as an open border globalist stooge in hands of Brussels and Berlin, who is all for globalization and open borders. Infact, if one combines the vote of far right Le Pen, and far left Eurosceptic Melenchon, the total count goes to 46 percent of the vote.

Of course, there’s a sign of palpable relief across Europe. After Brexit and Trump it was thought that the far right will surge across Europe, but Netherlands stopped that with Wilders winning a really small portion of the vote. Then France is also going traditional way. If the republicans as well as the socialists pull together behind Macron, there is a high possibility that Le pen will be soundly defeated. Le Pen’s brand is still toxic, and despite the anti-EU anti-Muslim appeal, she is haunted by her father’s past as well as her own legacy of money laundering and Russian funding. She also recently bizarrely claimed innocence in Vichy France’s role in holocaust, a taboo subject in European politics. C-IoYdUWsAA_W4X

It is also not correct to compare Le Pen with Brexit and Trump. Brexit and Trump are both populist movements, but both with much different causality. Brexit doesn’t mean that UK is slowly looking inward, infact quite the opposite UK is dying for trade deals with India, Australia, US and China. Both Brexit and Trump are also fueled by mostly older generation, while the core group of Le Pen support is youth. And, neither UK or US has faced as much terror attacks as France.

And that’s why I am refusing to give in to the complacence. There is fair chance of Macron winning, but Le Pen is essentially just one major terror attack away, and it is foolish after 2016 to discount how much public opinion can change. With stagnated economy, a completely divided country and battle lines drawn in half and half, and incessant terror attacks, it would be foolish to discount any possibilities. This is one of those times, where I will be happy to be wrong, but much though I try, I am sounding cynical. Nationalism is a powerful drug, and emotions, especially after a terror attack, can change the course of history of Europe as we know it.


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Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra is a Doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. He spends way too much time on Twitter, @MrMaitra

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