Global Glance: March 30, 2017
A quick look at intriguing international stories
By John Bostwick, Managing Editor, Radius
Overview of France’s Presidential Election and Why It’s So Important
Countless news stories in recent months have noted that important elections will take place this year in European countries, in particular those in the Netherlands, Germany and France. Of these “big three” elections, most agree the one in France has the potential to cause the greatest global upheaval.
The Basics of the French Election Process
France will hold its presidential election on April 23. French law dictates that the winner must obtain an absolute majority of votes. If the winner, then, fails to capture more than 50 percent of the ballots cast, there’ll be another vote held on May 7 between the top two vote-getters of the first election.
France’s Constitutional Council announced on March 18 that eleven candidates will be on the ballot for the April 23 election. Of those eleven, most experts (including odds makers) give three candidates a realistic shot at winning.
The Top Three Candidates
Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen is the current leader of France’s Front National party (FN), known for its protectionist, anti-immigrant rhetoric. Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the FN and helped keep it on the fringe for years with what an excellent Guardian article calls his shows of “shouty, protest outrage.” That article says Marine Le Pen “has put an end to that, evicting [her father] from the party last year after a dramatic feud for his repeated belittling of the Holocaust.”
The Guardian explains that despite her efforts to distance herself from her controversial father, Marine Le Pen is “running an anti-immigration campaign and warning of Islam’s dangers to France while promising a return of the nation-state and economic protectionism.” This platform pretty much exactly mirrors Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign platform. And despite Le Pen’s significant differences with Trump — including the fact that she makes efforts to soften FN rhetoric to make it more palatable to those in the center and the fact that she has two decades of political experience — she and many of her followers have been buoyed by Trump’s unexpected victory.
The Guardian says that Le Pen sees that victory and the Brexit referendum result as “the dawn of a new world order.” President Trump's win in particular is to her “proof that the ‘political and media elite’ can be put in their place, that establishment predictions can be proved wrong.”
The nonprofit Gatestone Institute sums up the FN leader this way: “Le Pen is the anti-establishment change candidate … [she] is offering voters a historic opportunity to reassess relations with the European Union, reassert national sovereignty and stanch the flow of mass migration from the Muslim world.”
Le Pen, then, is part of a global trend of populism (or anti-globalization) that is threatening the established political order of the Western world. The Institute quotes from a speech Le Pen gave last month in Lyon, which captures this trend: "The old left-right debates have outlived their usefulness. Primaries have shown that debates about secularism or immigration, as well as globalization or generalized deregulation, constitute a fundamental and transversal divide. This divide is no longer between the left and the right, but between patriots and globalists.”
Interestingly, Le Pen’s current chief rival in the election also bears some similarities to the current US president. Like Trump, Emmanuel Macron is a presidential candidate who has never before run for elected office. And like Trump, Macrron is (as the Gatestone piece puts it) “the incarnation” of his country’s establishment but “sounds off populist rhetoric” and claims that his candidacy “is about sweeping out a corrupt system.”
Macron’s and Trump's similarities largely end there. Macron is only 39, and worked as an economic minister under the Socialist President Hollande. Despite this liberal-government background, a BBC article explains that Macron “forged a reputation with his ‘Macron Law,’ a controversial reform bill that allowed shops to open more often on Sundays and deregulated some sectors of industry” and that he “championed digital start-ups and prompted a long-distance bus market.” These efforts put him at odds with some of his fellow government workers, so Macron resigned his economic-minister position. According to the BBC, he bills himself as a candidate who is “neither left nor right.”
The Gatestone Institute piece desbcribes Macron as a “pro-EU, pro-Islam globalist … whose core base of support consists of young, urban progressives.”
The Guardian article first mentioned above was written in December of last year, and at that time most experts predicted that François Fillon would meet Le Pen in the (likely) event of a May 7 run-off election. The Guardian describes Fillon as “the rightwing former prime minister under Sarkozy, who is the candidate for Les Républicains.” His “hard line on immigration and Islam and his pro-Putin foreign agenda overlap with some of Le Pen’s key ideas.”
Since December, Fillon’s presidential campaign suffered a serious blow. The Guardian reported in March that Fillon had been “accused of defrauding the public purse by employing his wife, Penelope, and their children in ‘fake’ parliamentary jobs.” He would be “formally charged by prosecutors on March 15.” The article observes: “the fact that Fillon, for all his woes, cannot be definitively written off says a lot about an extraordinary election that has repeatedly broken rules and set precedents.”
Reuters reported last Friday that on March 23, Fillon sensationally accused President Hollande “of being involved in what he alleges is a government plot to spread damaging media leaks about his affairs to destroy his chances of being elected.”
The outcome of France’s election will of course have ramifications for the country, and will almost certainly influence immigration regulations, free trade and foreign investment. But in some important ways, this election is already over for certain members of the French political establishment. As an Al Jazeera article points out, “since World War II, French presidents have always come from either the Socialist or the Republican parties.” A victory by Le Pen or fellow frontrunner Emmanuel Macron will put an end to that run. Al Jazeera says that Le Pen and Macron have already "relegated the mainstream parties to the level of mere outsiders.” Consider also that French president François Hollande is in the words of The Guardian a “desperately unpopular Socialist leader” who “has become the first sitting president in modern times to decline to stand for a second term.”
In addition to these important domestic consequences, many commentators believe this election will decide the fate of the European Union. The Guardian says that if Le Pen wins and “has her way” France will “quit the euro and the EU,” which “would be fatal to the European project.” The Reuters article mentioned above says that this possibility has investors “jittery,” and The Wall Street Journal also claims Le Pen’s plan to leave the eurozone “has markets on edge.”
The Al Jazeera editorial cited agrees that a Le Pen victory “would clearly mean the end of the EU as we know it, as a Frexit vote would leave Germany as the only major global economic and political actor.” It adds that a Macron victory “would be far more positive” for the EU. It also notes that, unlike the UK, France was a founding member of the EU and has always had more influence in Brussels than the UK has. The article concludes that, depending on who wins the French election — Le Pen or Macron most likely — “the EU will either take a giant step backwards or be re-energized and rejuvenated.”
The Expected Outcome
Last week, the BBC reported that opinion polls show Le Pen “is neck and neck with Emmanuel Macron but unlikely to defeat him in the second round in May.” An article published last Thursday on U Penn’s Wharton site also (cautiously) predicts that France is “unlikely to become the next populist domino to fall” and that “it is more likely that a moderately pro-European candidate will win the French elections with a more or less comfortable margin (65% to 35% according to projections).”
Last Friday, The Telegraph published an article titled “French Presidential Election: Poll Tracker and Odds.” It notes that after the recent surprise outcomes in the US presidential race and Brexit referendum, some “have lost faith in political polling.” In light of that widespread skepticism, the article lists current “punters” (i.e., gamblers) odds. Those show Macron and Le Pen as the strong favorites at 8/15 and 5/2 respectively, followed by Fillon at 6/1. (The Socialist Benoit Hamon is a distant fourth, at 66/1.)
Smart gamblers will likely stay away from this wager. Friday’s Reuters article indicates that polls last week show an “unprecedented level of voter uncertainty,” with almost half the French electorate still undecided “with only a month to go until the election.” The Telegraph also points out that “the race can change again dramatically once the candidates are whittled down to a final two in the second round.”