Sunday, May 28, 2023

Why this week’s French elections matter to the wider world

by Thomas Adamson

PARIS ( Associated Press) – With war singing at the eastern edge of the European Union, French voters will vote in a presidential election, the results of which will have international implications. France is the second economy of the 27-member bloc, the only one with a United Nations Security Council veto and its only nuclear power. And as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues the war in Ukraine, French power will help shape Europe’s response.

Twelve candidates are vying for the presidency – including incumbent and favorite President Emmanuel Macron, who is seeking a new term amid a far-right challenge.

Here’s why the two-round French election, starting on Sunday, matters:


Russia’s war in Ukraine has given Macron an opportunity to demonstrate his influence on the international stage and burn his pro-NATO credentials in election debates. Macron is the only front-runner who supports the coalition, while other candidates have different views on France’s role, including leaving it altogether. Such a development would be a major blow to a coalition formed 73 years ago to protect its members in the then-emerging Cold War.

Despite NATO declaring “brain death” in 2019, the war in Ukraine has prompted Macron to try to align it with a new sense of purpose.

“Macro really wants to be a European pillar of NATO,” says Susie Denison, Senior Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “He has used it for his shuttle diplomacy on the Ukraine conflict.”

On the far left, candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon wants to leave NATO outright, saying it creates nothing but conflict and instability. NATO-skeptical President Mélnchon may be of particular concern to Poland, which has a 1,160-km border with territory now controlled by Russia.

Many other candidates want to see either less engagement with the alliance or a complete comeback. Although unlikely, France’s departure from NATO would lead to a deepening rift with its allies and alienate the United States.

european cooperation

Observers say Macron’s re-election would create real potential for increased cooperation and investment in European security and defence – especially with a new pro-EU German government.

Under Macron’s watch, France’s defense spending has increased by €7 billion ($7.6 billion), with the goal of raising it to 2% of GDP – something that leaders including Putin are watching closely. In his second term, Macron almost certainly wants to build a joint European response to Ukraine and confront Russian threats.

A distant alliance?

The election could reshape France’s post-war identity and signal whether European populism is on the rise or in decline. With populist Viktor Orbán winning a fourth consecutive term as Hungary’s prime minister, eyes are now turned to France’s resurgent far-right candidates – particularly national rally leader Marine Le Pen who banned Muslim headscarfs on the streets. and halal and kosher butchers, and substantially reduce immigration from outside Europe.

“If a far-right candidate wins, it could create some sort of alliance or pivot in Europe,” said Denison of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Le Pen has been tweeting photos of herself shaking hands with Orban in recent days. She’s supporting a Europe of strong nation states.”

That pivot could include Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, a right-wing populist and an ally of Donald Trump. This has alerted observers.

“More than 30 percent of French voters right now say that they are going to vote for a very correct candidate. If you include Mélanchon as another extreme, anti-system candidate – that is the entire voting population. That’s almost half. It’s phenomenal,” Denison said.

Far-right candidate Eric Zemour continues to dominate the French airwaves with his controversial views on Islam and immigration in France.

However, the centrist Macron also defended the right to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Muslim countries two years ago. This came while paying tribute to a teacher by a fanatic showing cartoons to his students as part of a class on free speech.

a friend of america

The US often describes France as its oldest ally – and from Russian sanctions to climate change and the United Nations, Washington needs a credible partner in Paris. France is an important trans-Atlantic friend to the US, not least for its status as continental Europe’s only permanent UN Security Council member that exercises veto power.

Despite a heated US-France tussle last year over a billion-dollar deal to supply submarines to Australia – which humiliated France – President Joe Biden and Macron are now on solid terms.

“Macron is clearly the only candidate who has history and credentials in American relations. All others will start from scratch in times of great geopolitical uncertainty,” Denison said.

Unlike Macron, an Elysee in the hands of either Zemour or Le Pen would mean less preoccupation with issues the US considers a priority, such as climate change. “They cannot prioritize the huge economic cost of keeping the Paris climate agreement alive and its ability to limit global warming to 1.5%,” Denison said.

migration to the continent

In light of the huge influx of migrants into Europe last year, France’s position on migration will continue to strongly influence countries on its periphery and beyond. It serves as a leg on many expatriates’ travel to the UK especially due to its geographical location.

Last November a migrant ship capsized in the English Channel, killing 27 people, leading to a dispute between France and the UK, which claimed responsibility. Observers believe that France is not particularly open to migrants in the European context and view Macron as a relative fanatic on migration.

But Le Pen or Zemour will launch tougher policies than Macron if they are victorious in either, such as reducing social allocation for non-French citizens and limiting the number of asylum seekers. Some candidates have supported the Trump-style construction of the border fence.


Follow Associated Press’s coverage of the French election

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