French election leaves choice between far-right populism and centrist pragmatism

Sam Rosenblatt, Staff Writer

Far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen received roughly 21.7 percent of votes on April 23 in the first round of the country’s 2017 election, enough to secure a place in the runoff vote that will take place on May 7. Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron received 23.7 percent of the vote and will be Le Pen’s opponent in the next round.

Le Pen’s success is indicative of the recent string of political surprises throughout the world over the past year. Few would have predicted when Donald Trump first announced his candidacy that he would gain the support to power him to the Oval Office. Likewise, the prospect of Britain voting to leave the European Union might have been unthinkable prior to the country’s referendum in June 2016.

Yet in this new age of politics, unexpected upstarts have become the new normal.

Neither Le Pen nor Macron come from France’s traditionally dominant political parties, as both the center-right Republican Party and the left’s Socialist Party failed to attract sufficient support for their candidates. This election was effectively a rejection of politics as usual. While the Republican and Socialist Parties collected a combined 56 percent of votes in the first round of the 2012 French election, they received just 26 percent of votes in the first round this year as voters defected to alternative candidates. Such results coincide with a similar dissatisfaction surrounding America’s Democratic and Republican Parties throughout the 2016 election cycle.

Le Pen is the leader of the far-right National Front party and has campaigned against immigration and France’s continued membership in the European Union. She also wants France to pursue a course akin to Trump’s “America First” policies that will promote local industries rather than globalization. Her brand of populism is more extreme than Trump’s and Brexit.

On the other hand, Macron represents the En Marche! (meaning “Forward”) party, which he founded in an attempt to unite both ends on the political spectrum. At 39 years old, Macron has never held elected office but did serve as the French Minister of the Economy and Finance from 2014 to 2016.

Le Pen’s populist message and Macron’s political novice are both characteristics that Trump embodied during his campaign. However, the similarities between America and France’s respective elections are dwarfed by a critical difference: the implications of Le Pen’s anti-EU policies.

France leaving the EU would be a devastating blow to the economic integration that has taken place across the continent since World War II. Brexit may hurt the EU, but Britain was neither a member of the Eurozone nor used the euro as their currency. In contrast, France was a founding member of the EU. In fact, one of its initial purposes was to prevent conflict between France and Germany, which played a large role in both world wars.

This is not to say that the EU is perfect, but having one of its foremost members withdraw could set back decades of economic progress. If French citizens are unhappy with their role in the EU, then they should pursue reforms within the organization rather than leaving altogether.

Though change is often necessary to uplift a nation, Le Pen’s policies could be catastrophic not only for France but also for Europe and the world as a whole. Meanwhile Macron, as a political outsider, is far from “the lesser of two evils.” His centrist policies can steer France in the right direction while avoiding Le Pen’s radical agenda and the status quo of the political elite. While Macron would bring reasonable change, Le Pen would bring chaos.


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