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Q&A: French elections and the future of the European Union

April 19, 2017
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French voters are heading to the polls this Sunday in what’s considered a high-stakes election amid security and economic concerns as well as European Union stability. If none of the candidates reach a majority, the runoff election will take place May 7.

Joshua Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, discusses the background and potential impact of the election on the rest of the EU. Cole’s research and teaching deal primarily with the social and cultural history of France in the 19th and 20th centuries. He’s author of “The Power of Large Numbers: Population, Politics, and Gender in Nineteenth-Century France.”

Q: What are the issues driving the conversation before the presidential election in France?

Cole: Unemployment in France doesn’t compare well with the other stronger economies within the European Union. Germany’s unemployment rate is less than 5 percent, France’s unemployment rate has been consistently closer to the 10 percent rage, in particular since the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the crisis in the eurozone. That’s something that successive governments have struggled to deal with and been unable to take the steps necessary to find a solution.

There is also tremendous anxiety because of the recent terrorist acts in 2015 and 2016.

France has been under a near constant state of emergency now for several years. In many ways, that’s the new normal. The question the French are really struggling with is the fact that many of the perpetrators of these terror attacks are homegrown. The people who committed these acts grew up in France, went to French schools, and they speak French. The big question is this: What is the cause of this alienation?

Q: There are 11 candidates for this election. Who should we be paying attention to?

Cole:  There are 11 candidates but there are really only five that are in contention right now. What is most striking is that the two parties that have dominated presidential politics since the late 1950s are currently ranked third and fifth. Almost without exception since 1958, French presidents have alternated between Gaullists on the center-right and the Socialists on the center-left. Most polls now predict that the candidates from these parties are unlikely to make the second round of voting.

Marine Le Pen, of the extreme right-wing National Front, is currently polling at 25 percent. Her likely opponent in the runoff is Emmanuel Macron, who leads an independent centrist movement. The Republican Party (center-right) was thought to be in good shape but their candidate, Francois Fillon, has been embroiled in a scandal involving no-show jobs for his wife, and he has fallen significantly in the polls as a result.

The man who won the primary from the Socialist Party, Benoît Hamon, has really not gotten much traction at all and is about 10 percent and falling. Surprisingly, in the past few days a firebrand from the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has been rising in the polls and some people now put him somewhere between 15 and 20 percent and rising.

If he continues to gain support, there is a possibility that this populist figure from the left may edge out Macron and face Marine Le Pen in the second round. This would be very unusual. Mélenchon is a protest vote from the left. Marine Le Pen represents a protest vote from the right. If these are the two leading candidates, we will be forced to admit that the center has completely dropped out of French politics.

Q: There have been comparisons made between the nationalistic, anti-immigrant and anti-globalization rhetoric of Le Pen and Donald Trump. What do they have in common?

Cole: There are clearly some surface similarities and I think Marine Le Pen hopes to duplicate Donald Trump’s success: an emphasis on national sovereignty, a strong and exclusive definition of national culture which is unwilling to see that culture evolve, a definition of national cultures that seems to be rooted in a very exclusive definition of the past. Those are some types of similarities. Also, a desire to paint the present in extremely dire terms. That is (saying that) we are in a very severe crisis that requires very extreme methods, an abandonment of policies that have been the object of consensus (and) the use of an angry rhetoric that is often very effective in getting support from the people who are attracted to these politicians.

Q: Le Pen’s father, Jean Marie Le Pen, founded the National Front and was considered to be too extreme to be successful in politics. His daughter has become one of the frontrunners of this election. How did she accomplish that?

Cole: She avoided making the same kind of anti-semitic comments that her father often made, but she still emphasized the threat posed by immigration to French national identity. She combined this message with a more carefully groomed image that sought to appeal to a wider electorate. And it has worked—her father’s ceiling was about 18 percent, whereas she is now capable of attracting between a quarter and a third of the electorate.

Q: In recent elections in the Netherlands, the right-wing candidate with similar stances to Le Pen was defeated. Could France be a do-over for the European right?

Cole: Wilders in the Netherlands didn’t win but he didn’t lose, either. He has a significant number of voters behind him. His message was clear and people voted for him in large numbers. He is not going away.

That’s true in France, as well. In France, presidential politics were traditionally divided between two parties with smaller parties on the right and left. With the growth of the National Front, I think we can say now we have a three-party system in France. She might not win now, but she’ll be back. The most clear indication of that is that she appears to be particularly popular amongst young people in France. They’re not troubled by the long history of anti-semitism and racism that has been associated with the party she represents.

Q: What can you tell us about the top candidates’ foreign policies?

Cole: Questions about Marine Le Pen foreign policies are very difficult to answer. It’s really the internal issues of Frenchness and sovereignty that drive the central energy and dynamics of her campaign, the fears of a multicultural France.

With regards to Europe, and pulling France out of the European Union, this is a threat that she’s made repeatedly. She has talked about a Frexit, an exit of France. This would be an earthquake. It would probably damage the EU in deeply unpredictable ways. The European Union is built on the axis of Franco-German cooperation. If France pulls out, it’s not clear what the European Union is anymore. There, the consequences are both severe and unpredictable.

Macron has not really been very successful in articulating a clear message from the center other than general pronouncements about a defense of traditional republican French traditions. He’s presented himself in many ways as the anti-Le Pen. We don’t really know what kind of policies he would pursue. The suggestions that he’s made are pretty much in line with what governments have tried before, a kind of centrist position in the economy. Dissatisfaction with that is partly driving the success of Mélenchon on the left. I find the situation as unpredictable as any election I’ve ever watched.

Q: Do you venture to make a prediction?

Cole: I think that what’s going to happen is that Macron and Le Pen will be in the second round. The polls show Macron as likely to win that matchup. But here is the thing: If you look at the polls of people who announce themselves as undecided in the second round, nearly half the voters say they have not yet decided—other polls say about a third. So nobody knows how that group will break. That means that the possibility for a much closer election exists.

I was surprised by Brexit, I was surprised by Trump’s victory. I’m not going to be as surprised if Marine Le Pen pulls it out. I’ll be shocked, I’ll be deeply worried. But I think it’s in the realm of possibilities.

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