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The French presidential election is anything but ordinary.
On Sunday, France will hold the first round of its presidential election. The two leading candidates will then face a runoff in May. In a normal election year, most bets would be on either a center-right or a center-left candidate of the two main parties, the Républicains and the Socialist Party.
Not this year. For one, incumbent President François Hollande, sporting an unfathomably low approval rating, is the first French president since World War II not to seek re-election. The discontent is understandable. France continues to be plagued by sluggish economic growth and high unemployment rates, with youth unemployment at nearly 25 percent. Earlier this year, the banlieues saw waves of riots, sparked by incidents of police brutality but fueled by years of economic stagnation and alienation particularly among immigrant youth.
As a result, the Socialist candidate picked in Mr. Hollande’s place, Benoît Hamon, remains in a distant fifth place, standing little chance of making it to the runoff. The only left-wing candidate with a fighting chance of reaching the presidency is Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Backed by the French Communist Party, Mélenchon’s policy wish list makes U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders look like a right-winger: a 100-percent tax rate on incomes above 360,000 euros and a re-nationalization of the energy sector. Unless the European project is revised along hard-left lines, France should leave the EU and the common European currency. Of course, Mélenchon also recommends leaving NATO, and would instead have France join the “Bolivarian alliance,” alongside Cuba and Venezuela.
The conservative candidate of the Républicains, François Fillon, is the closest to a normal candidate in this year’s race. A self-described Thatcherite, the former prime minister is polling close to Mélenchon’s. He has raised eyebrows with his unabashedly pro-Kremlin views and calls for the removal of the EU’s sanctions imposed on Russia after its seizure of Crimea. A long stream of scandals have compromised his candidacy, including the ongoing investigation of over a million dollars that he paid to family members through sham salaries as parliamentary assistants.
The one candidate who seems likely to make it to the second round, if only because her voter base seems the most firm, is the leader of the authoritarian populist National Front, Marine Le Pen. Daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2002, Marine Le Pen has tried to rebrand the National Front‘s toxic image – going so far as to kick her father out of the party. However, she has done little to change its underlying ideology, built around a rejection of immigration, particularly from Muslim-majority countries, economic nationalism, and promising to leave the EU and NATO.
Finally, there is the unlikely front-runner, Emmanuel Macron. A former banker, he served as minister of the economy in Hollande’s government, where he attempted a number of liberalizing reforms. Last year, he founded his own political movement En Marche (“On the Move”). Like Fillon, he promises deep economic reforms. France needs them, but even if Macron is elected it is unclear whether he can secure a parliamentary majority necessary to deliver them. Claiming to be neither on the left nor right, he is the only one of the four front-runners to describe himself as a “convinced European.” And unlike the other three, he’s distrustful of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Polls suggest an extremely tight race on Sunday. The top four are fluctuating within a range of 5 percentage points – close enough that the widely expected scenario of a Macron-Le Pen runoff is far from certain. But even if she wins the first round, Le Pen’s chances in a runoff against either Macron or Fillon are not rosy.
The stakes are high, even paradigm-shaking. If translated into policy, the Eurosceptic and anti-NATO rhetoric peddled by some candidates could easily put an end to Europe as we know it. And even if the election ends up being a triumph for Macron, he may well fall into the usual pattern of over-promise and under-delivery. Should that happen, the angry authoritarian populism on the left and right will be back with a vengeance in five years.
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Towards an Imperfect Union: A Conservative Case for the EU
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