Washington Post: French citizens vote in an uncertain race that could determine Europe’s future

April 23, 2017

By Michael Birnbaum and James McAuley

PARIS — French citizens cast their votes Sunday in an unsettled race for the presidency that had the power to make or break the alliances underpinning the West’s post-World War II order.

In a year of populist drama, the closely watched election offered citizens sharply differing choices about France’s role in the world. The front-runners ranged from an ex-Trotskyist campaigner who wants to impose a maximum income to a hard-edged, anti-immigrant firebrand who wants to split from the European Union and reorient toward Russia.

The top two vote-getters of the crowded field of 11 candidates will advance to the decisive round of elections May 7. But four front-runners with starkly different platforms were clustered ahead of the vote, making it nearly impossible to predict the outcome. Nearly a third of French voters were undecided in the days leading up to the election, a measure of the degree to which the political system has been scrambled after years of high unemployment and disenchantment with the Socialist and conservative parties that have traded power for generations.

At a polling station near the Bataclan nightclub — the site of a terrorist attack in November 2015 — Sophie Girardeaus voted Sunday for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

“I’m not really enthusiastic about any of the candidates,” said Girardeaus, 30, who works in a youth center. “But it mainly was a vote against all the other contenders. A lot of my friends were also still undecided yesterday.”

The election has special resonance after last year’s vote by Britain to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential campaign. If anti-immigrant leader Marine Le Pen, 48, seizes France’s presidency, it will be another advance for nationalistic forces that question the value of international alliances and seek to turn back the forces of globalism. She has electrified rallies with her vows to roll back the clock in France, a vision that largely excludes its Muslim population, estimated to be Europe’s largest. And if she succeeds in her quest to pull France from the European Union, the rest of the bloc could quickly fall apart.

But if the centrist, pro-E. U. candidate Emmanuel Macron, 39, ascends to the gilded halls of the Élysée Palace, the home of the French presidency, the 28-nation bloc could be reinvigorated by his vows to make rich countries do more to help the weakest ones. Macron, who was economy minister until August, has never held elected office and has struggled to create as energetic or committed a base as Le Pen’s, even as he has led in many opinion polls.

Morgane Lefrançois, a 37-year-old entrepreneur, cast her ballot for Macron on Sunday: “He has most chances of winning, and I like his vision of uniting our society.”

Anger has been the overwhelming sentiment at rallies across the country in recent weeks. More than ever, 2017 has presented real alternatives for voters eager to make drastic changes to French and European politics.

Whatever the outcome of the race, it will mark a turning point in the history of modern France.

Both of the traditional parties that have governed France since 1958 — the center-left Socialists and center-right Républicains — have struggled to make inroads with voters. François Fillon, the center-right candidate, has been fending off corruption allegations following a public spending scandal. Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, has nearly no chance of advancing to the second round and trails Mélenchon, the far-left candidate who would seek to immediately withdraw France from NATO’s unified command.

The 2017 election has seen the rapid demise of the Socialist Party, a bedrock of French and European politics for decades. France’s current Socialist president, François Hollande, is deeply unpopular, with a term that has been dogged by stagnant double-digit unemployment figures and a painful drumbeat of terrorist attacks. But the party’s downfall, analysts say, ultimately stems from bitter internal divisions that mirror those in the Democratic Party in the United States.

That polarity is on full display in the current campaign, with two former Socialists — Macron and Mélenchon, a longtime left-winger — forging their own vastly different political movements. Macron, a former investment banker, is friendly to neoliberal, pro-business agendas; Mélenchon, a former Trotskyist, would nationalize France’s biggest banks.

The shift also reflects the “sociological transformation of French society” in recent years, said Gérard Grunberg, a historian of French socialism at Sciences Po in Paris.

“In ways few predicted, the popular classes became more anti-immigrant than anti-capitalist,” Grunberg said. “That’s a fact of social democracy all across Europe, and especially so in France.”

The vote came after a turbulent campaign in which longtime pillars of France’s political establishment were rejected by voters or discredited by scandal. Hollande, the most unpopular of all postwar French presidents, said he would not seek reelection. His most prominent Socialist successor lost to a primary challenger. So did the center-right former president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Thursday’s attack on police officers patrolling Paris’s glittering Champs-Elysees boulevard was the final, bloody exclamation point in a campaign that often revolved around fears of terrorism and immigrants. One officer died, and two were wounded by a gunman who pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.

Filled with fresh worries about security, voters may be drawn toward Le Pen’s growling message toward refugees and terrorism suspects.

Another beneficiary may be the campaign’s early front-runner. Fillon, 63, is a right-wing challenger who seeks a Margaret Thatcher-style overhaul of France’s economy. In January, he was knocked off his top-tier perch after a nepotism scandal, but he staged a late comeback and reestablished himself as a credible contender to advance to the second round of voting.

Fillon was France’s prime minister from 2007 until 2012 and has an aggressive plan for combating terrorism that critics say edges toward Le Pen’s in its harsh attitudes toward Muslims and civil liberties.

The fourth front-runner is Mélenchon, 65, a far-left campaigner who has electrified audiences with his soak-the-rich rhetoric and has vowed to upend France’s political system by pulling the nation from the European Union, which he criticizes as captured by finance and big business. Although he is the oldest front-runner, his Web-savvy campaign has captured youth interest through speeches released on YouTube, rallies at which he has appeared by hologram and a video game in which players play a Robin Hood-type figure attacking the rich to bring money into public coffers.

If Mélenchon and Le Pen advance to the final round — a realistic possibility, given the overall uncertainty and each candidate’s fired-up base — there would be immediate reaction across the globe, since both candidates want to ditch the euro currency and leave the European Union. They would also leave NATO’s unified command structure and reorient France’s foreign policy to be more favorable toward Russia.

Even the mere possibility of France leaving the euro probably would create a run on French banks and lead to sharply higher borrowing costs for the country, a replay of Greece’s difficulties on a far larger stage. The Russian government, meanwhile, could be emboldened knowing that it is guaranteed a French leader who seeks distinctly warmer ties. Fillon is also friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has questioned France’s support for sanctions against Russia.

Though Le Pen has been in first or second place in first-round opinion polling throughout most of the campaign, most polls show she will fall to any second-round challenger.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s