My thoughts on today’s French Presidential election

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April 23, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith

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Politicians are all the same, are they? Not in France. The whole political spectrum is available to vote for today in the first round of voting for who will be President of France. France is a semi-Presidential republic, which means that its President has considerable power – in particular for national security and foreign policy. Today’s election is thus of particular relevance to the UK, because the President will heavily influence the upcoming Brexit negotiations, and, in the case of one particular candidate, potentially bring about the end of the European Union itself.

The name on everyone’s lips is Marine Le Pen, the Leader of the Front Nationale. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was also leader, and far more extremist that she seems to be (although there is of course a difference between what a person says when campaigning and what they do). If she becomes leader she has threatened to completely close France’s borders ( partially in response to Thursday’s terrorist attack) and prioritize French citizens for receiving public services ahead of foreign nationals. Le Pen has also talked of a wish for the European Union to break up, so that national governments are able to restore their sovereignty again. A victory for Le Pen will mean an end to the liberal values that have been at the centre of the French political culture for many years and pose a massive challenge to the political establishment.

That victory cannot happen today, because a winner can only emerge today if one candidate achieves 50% of the popular vote. The four main candidates (Jean-Luc Melanchon from the far-left, the centrist Emmanuel Macron, the conservative Francois Fillon (currently being investigated for alleged financial impropriety and Le Pen) are all getting around 20%, with Macron and Le Pen ahead in the race to be the top two candidates in this poll, which puts them into the second vote next Sunday. The idea then is that other candidates’ voters will need to choose between those top two. It is assumed that one of them will be Le Pen. The other could be Melanchon, who has excited many with his own anti-establishment message (he actually wants a Sixth Republic established to replace the current system) and his gimmick of using a hologram of himself to speak to six different rallies at the same time. Either of those two winning and the country will change radically.

That said, current President Francois Hollande had big plans too. He is the first French President not to seek a second term in modern political history. He pulled out of the race last year, aware of his historically low approval ratings (4%) and the danger his running would thus cause to the French left. The left’s ability to ignore political reality has already caused a little log-jam of socialist candidates, with Benoit Hamon taking some votes from Jean-Luc Melanchon which could mean the latter doesn’t get in the run-off.

This leaves Emmanuel Macron. He is a business-friendly ex-investment banker with a policy-mix that ranges from socialist to neo-liberal. He is 39 years old but has seven step-granchildren because he is married to his former French teacher. He speaks fluent English, which at a time when the French President is going to be heavily involved in negotiations with the UK can be very useful in relationship building with whoever will be Prime Minister after June 8th.

If pushed for a prediction, Macron and Le Pen will be in the final two and Macron would then win as he is a candidate followers of both Fillon and Melanchon could hold their nose and vote for against Le Pen. This is not the same as what would happen if Melanchon came through – in which case followers of Fillon might actually vote for Le Pen.

If that happens, the World, let alone Europe, could be about to undergo quite a political earthquake.

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