Photo by Jason Qu, The Science Survey
In France, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen will face off against centrist Emmanuel Macron in a runoff presidential election on May 7th, 2017. Le Pen, who promotes nationalist, France-first policies, is in many ways the French continuation of the populist wave which has swept the world in recent years. Polls also indicate that a victory for Le Pen would be relatively unlikely, but after poll-busting performances by Donald Trump and the British in/out referendum to leave the European Union, a Le Pen victory seems less far fetched.
The election in many ways mirrors the most recent U.S. presidential election. As Sofia Burton ’18 put it, “Le Pen represents the paranoia and xenophobia plaguing French politics, just as Trump represented the fear associated with American populism.”
Policy-wise, Le Pen has many similarities to Donald Trump. She wants to heavily restrict immigration to France in hopes of preventing terrorism, to place restrictions on French Muslims, to promote “France-first” policies, and to expand and strengthen the French criminal justice system.
“Le Pen represents the paranoia and xenophobia plaguing French politics, just as Trump represented the fear associated with American populism.” — Sofia Burton ’18
Le Pen’s background, however, differs somewhat from that of other nationalist leaders. While much of her mission is to rid France from politics-as-usual, Le Pen has been politically involved from a fairly young age. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded the party that she now represents, the National Front (also known as the “Front Nationale,” or FN), in 1972, and continued to lead it until 2011, when Marine Le Pen took over.
Much of Le Pen’s work has been softening the FN’s image to make it more approachable. This is because as leader of the party, her father made many racist and anti-semitic remarks. In a 1987 interview, he dismissed concentration camps and gas chambers used to kill Jewish people as only a small, insignificant detail of World War II, and has repeatedly stood by the remarks when questioned. In respect to a French-Jewish singer, he has recently said “next time, we will put him in an oven.”
For Le Pen’s critics, these remarks remain deeply troubling. Nathan Felmus ’19 explained that he believes that the Le Pen family and the FN are all “pretty much Holocaust deniers.” Felmus furthered, “Growing up in a Jewish family that came to America to flee persecution in Europe, I grew up thinking things had changed since then. It’s really scary that I’m being proven wrong.”
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen’s opponent, is a centrist, but far from a conventional one. A former investment banker, he has never held elected office, and he is not backed by any established political party, making him in some ways the ultimate outsider.
This is not to say that Macron does not have establishment support, however, and nor does it suggest that he wants to totally change up French politics. Up until August, when he decided to run for president, he was Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs under French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and before that, he was a senior staff member under President François Hollande.
Macron has also racked up endorsements from all across the political spectrum–he is backed by most French politicians, including President Hollande, François Fillon (who came in third place in the initial stage of the French election), current Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, and many unions and religious organizations in France.
Specifics aside, the Macron/Le Pen election is far more significant than it appears. The results may represent a tipping point for far-right nationalist movements.
Le Pen supports a French exit from the European Union. If she were to accomplish this, the E.U. itself could be doomed. With Britain and France–its second and third largest economic contributors–exiting, more countries may be encouraged to follow suit, leaving the organization obsolete.
Elections in other countries could also be affected by the results. With new momentum, far-right nationalists could win victories in places such as Germany, where long-time chancellor Angela Merkel could face an unusually challenging re election battle in September.
Regardless of one’s political views, one thing remains for certain: this election will almost definitely determine the future of E.U. and the world. This is the election that really matters.