The upcoming French elections in April have drawn political attention from around the globe as a battle for the soul and future of the European Union. France as a nation has been the victim of years of economic stagnation and the bleak national mood (One poll last year found that French people are the most pessimistic on Earth, with 81% grumbling that the world is getting worse and only 3% saying that it is getting better.) has led to a situation where political outsiders are dominating the discourse. Five leading candidates will contest the first round of voting on 23 April. Unless one candidate wins more than 50% of the votes, the two leading contenders will then go through to a second round two weeks later on 7 May.
The current President, Francois Hollande, a Socialist, is not seeking a second term and is the first French president to not to do so in modern history. Many of the issues facing France are economic, the state swallows 57% of the country’s GDP and over 10% of the population are unemployed (the eighth highest unemployment rate amongst the 28 EU member states). The French economy has made a slow recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and all the leading candidates say deep changes are needed.
Another key issue is immigration and security, France has experienced some of the most high profile and deadly terror attacks on the European mainland and forcing citizens to live under a state of emergency and exposed deep cultural rifts in the country with Europe’s largest Muslim community. Whilst at first the clear favourite looked to be the centre-right candidate Francois Fillion, but a shock scandal that accused him of paying his wife public money worth 1.5 million Euros for jobs that she did not carry out has left him at the bottom of the pack (after stating that he would step down, he has since insisted on staying in the race, claiming that he was the victim of a character assassination.)
Instead he has been overtaken by Emmanuel Macron, a 38-year-old investment banker who was an economic adviser to President Francois Hollande before taking up the post of economy minister in 2014. Not only has he never been an MP, he has never stood for election. He is currently riding on a wave of voters hungry for change from the established system, but eager to avoid the perceived racism of Marine Le Pen’s Front National. Macron is staunchly pro-trade, pro-competition, pro-immigration and pro-EU, embracing cultural change and technological disruption. Pitching himself as a pro-globalisation revolutionary, he has made inroads with both the left and right.
By contrast Ms Le Pen blames outside forces and promises to protect voters with a combination of more barriers and greater social welfare. She has effectively distanced herself from her party’s anti-Semitic past (even evicting her father from the party he founded), but she appeals to those who want to shut out the rest of the world. She decries globalisation as a threat to French jobs and Islamists as fomenters of terror who make it perilous to wear a short skirt in public and refers to The EU as “an anti-democratic monster”. She vows to close radical mosques, stanch the flow of immigrants to a trickle, obstruct foreign trade, swap the euro for a resurrected French franc and call a referendum on leaving the EU.
Whilst it seems unlikely that Ms Le Pen will be able to clinch a victory, Russia has already being accused of launching a ‘fake news attack’ on Macron and Fillion is claiming that the charges against him are similarly false, no result should be assumed to be set in stone.