Oliver Goodman, Johns Hopkins University:
The first round of French elections ushered in an unsurprising victory for centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, but more significantly advanced Front National’s Marine Le Pen to the runoff election on May 7th. Le Pen’s volatile anti-immigration, nationalist rhetoric has captured support from many young voters in France who are disheartened with their economic opportunities.
The matchup set for May represents much more than a simple election for the new leader of France. The winner of the election will decide France’s future with the European Union, and perhaps even the future of the Union itself. Marine Le Pen is an outspoken advocate for France to abandon the Euro as a currency. She has promised a referendum on France’s membership in the EU if the leadership in Brussels refuses to allow France to re-establish its own currency. Macron, in contrast, is a former investment banker who pushes for a closer economic relationship between France and the 27 other countries that form the European Union.
In effect, the runoff election will be a quasi-referendum on France’s involvement in the EU. Macron is the current favorite, with pollsters estimating he’ll take home 60-62% of the vote. In an all-too-familiar scenario, however, a centrist candidate is the projected favorite, facing off against a nationalist rival whose candidacy is not taken seriously by the pollsters and analysts.
Le Pen’s success as a candidate fits into a nexus of economic nationalism that has swept through the West. Employing fiery rhetoric in a similar manner to Mr. Trump and the leaders of the Brexit movement, Ms. Le Pen has gained the trust of young people, who believe she can restore their economic prospects by placing an additional tax on foreign workers, restricting immigration, and banning foreign companies that they believe subject the French economy to unfair competition. In a country with a 9.6% unemployment rate, these policies have gained immense traction.
The May 7th election speaks to more than just the future of France and the EU, it signifies a larger wave of right-wing extremist politics that has swept through America and Europe. If French voters send Macron to the Elysee Palace, they will have taken a stand, not just for France, but for all Western countries, stopping the tide of nationalism. The French vote will be a good gauge of attitude in the continuous pendular debate between globalism and national identity.
Despite the risks Le Pen poses to the future of the EU, her chances of election seem very slim. For the most part, French pollsters have provided very accurate predictions, not experiencing the same pitfalls as the analysts who were wrong about Brexit and Mr. Trump. Many point to more comprehensive survey methods in France, where online polling is used with much more frequency than telephone polls, and the fact that Ms. Le Pen is a known quantity in French politics. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the political party she now helms, was in a very similar position in 2002; he only managed to capture 18 percent of the general vote.
Veterans of French politics also point to the electoral process as a platform that will reject Ms. Le Pen. Typically, the first round of voting is an emotional “protest vote,” where citizens air their public grievances. This medium supports a candidate like Le Pen, whose emotional rhetoric galvanizes the disgruntled masses. The second round of voting is seen as a more rational endeavor, where the centrist candidate usually experiences great success.
Despite its low profile in the US news cycle, the upcoming election in France will have global reverberations regardless of the victor. A win for Emmanuel Macron will be a victory for the European Union, and a vote of confidence for a globalized economic strategy that has been the subject of public ire. A win for Marine Le Pen would throw more fuel onto the nationalist fire that has swept over the West in the last six months. Whether they realize it or not, French voters have an opportunity to shape the immediate future of Western Democracy.