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Keep Your Eyes On France In Tale Of Two Elections – OpEd

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By Dr. John C. Hulsman*

The best political risk analysts have long been aware of a dirty secret lying at the heart of the analytical study of elections: Most of them don’t make much difference.

That is, the possible winners of a specific election tend to have so much in common in policy terms — what they will actually do over the big strategic things that any ruling party must face — that who wins is more of a superficial horse race than a contest over differing principles that will radically alter the trajectory of a country. In most cases, nations have long-term and well-defined national interests that are broadly agreed on by most of the political spectrum. While elections decide the important point as to who is elevated to manage these interests, it is ultimately a secondary question as the interests themselves are so overwhelmingly agreed to by all party factions of a country’s political elite.

Germany’s upcoming September parliamentary elections provide a garden-variety case-in-point. While the surging Greens have a real chance of a parliamentary victory — following 16 years of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Chancellor Angela Merkel’s somnambulant rule — in the end, such a change is more about style than substance. This is because centrist Merkellism will, in some form or other, dominate the new government whether Green candidate Annalena Baerbock or CDU leader Armin Laschet emerges victorious.

Over continued German membership in NATO, both the Greens and the CDU/Christian Social Union are for staying in the alliance. While Laschet says that Germany should finally meet the 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) goal for defense spending it has agreed to — shamefully, Berlin free rides off American defense expenditure, presently spending only 1.57 percent of GDP on defense — he offers no specifics at all as to how he intends to meet the goal, meaning he is highly unlikely to do so. Baerbock is slightly more candid, questioning the 2 percent target in the first place. In the end, Germany under either Laschet or Baerbock will stay in NATO, without meeting any serious spending commitments, exactly like Merkel.

Regarding the EU, again all three leaders sing from the same hymnal. Both Laschet and Baerbock call for further integration. Baerbock spells out her enthusiasm in more detail, talking about Brussels being able to issue common debt, but both are broadly EU-friendly candidates. Again, just like Merkel.

The same goes for China, where both Laschet and Baerbock are nervous about Beijing’s human rights record, but this is overridden by the need to conciliate export-driven Germany’s third-largest export market in 2019.

So, in the end, while the polls have the Greens and the CDU neck and neck, who wins in policy terms is much ado about nothing strategically.

The same cannot be said for the French presidential elections of April-May 2022. Politico’s polling for the end of May finds incumbent Emmanuel Macron only slightly ahead of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in terms of second-round voting intentions, 54 to 46 percent. To give you an idea of what a shift such close poll numbers underpin, the two candidates previously squared off in the second round of French presidential voting in 2017, with Macron winning overwhelmingly with 66 percent. This time around, the result looks set to be far closer.

Regarding France’s overall strategic direction, the two leading candidates could not be further apart in policy terms. Macron wants France to remain in NATO, while Le Pen calls for Paris to leave the military command. Macron wants the EU to become more integrated, taking on the role of a genuine supranational great power, with the ability to issue common debt and having a genuine military wing, even as Le Pen wants to radically remake Brussels from the inside, serving only as a loose club of European nation states.

Macron accepts the reality of globalization and free trade, whereas Le Pen views them as an evil eating away at the innards of France. On all these major, first-order points, the two have diametrically opposed views of the direction France must take if it is to succeed in our bewildering new era.

All of this means that, whereas there will be a lot of noise and faux drama about the upcoming German vote, the actual winner does not matter very much in analytical terms, as both the Greens and the CDU are card-carrying members of the common European political establishment, much as the Greens will hate (given their radical past) to be characterized this way.

On the other hand, the vote in France is pivotal for the immediate future of Europe. So keep your eyes on the French election, where a Le Pen victory would sweep away the underpinnings of the French Fifth Republic itself, as well as its elite’s common understanding of France’s strategic position in the world. A Le Pen victory would amount to that most overused of political phrases: A genuine revolution in both France’s and Europe’s history. In this tale of two elections, it is only the second vote that truly matters in political risk terms.

  • Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via chartwellspeakers.com.

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