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French Presidential Election – Make it or Break it for the European Union?

Nationalism, populism and racism are increasing across both Europe and the rest of the Western world. The presidential election in the United States and the Brexit referendum in Britain taught us that the outcome of free elections cannot be predicted in advance. Later this spring, France will elect their new president, a decision that will affect not only France but also the future of the European Union.

To be a part of the European Union countries have to fulfill the so-called ”Copenhagen criteria”. These include being a stable democracy with respect for human rights and protections for minorities, having a functioning free-market economy, accepting EU legislation and joining the Euro-zone. These liberal ideas and values that have been fundamental and respected in so many European countries are today threatened. The rise of nationalist far-right parties has spread across Europe and the Western world and has already resulted in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States.

In the last few years, the EU has been struggling with huge problems, including a financial crisis that caused high unemployment, the worst migration inflow since the Second World War and the closed borders that followed, and millions of people in boats on the Mediterranean, and now Brexit. These huge problems, where the EU haven’t delivered good solutions, is often argued to be the cause that nationalist right-wing parties are rising in Europe. These far-right parties tend to pursue policies that are anti-Islamic and anti-EU, and view immigration and globalization as threatening to democracies.

The French presidential election is going to be held on April 23 and May 7, and the nationalist party Front National has been on the top of the polls lately. Since 2011, when Marine Le Pen became the leader of the party, the support for the party has increased rapidly. A key reason for this is the fact that Ms. Le Pen has distanced herself from her father and former leader of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The rise in terror-attacks in France in recent years has undoubtedly also fueled Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform. Le Pen advocates nationalistic policies where she wants France to leave the EU and the Euro through a ”Frexit”, and pursue an anti-globalization, anti-immigration and anti-Islam agenda.

The French election is not only one out of many European elections held this year (Netherland, Germany, Hungary to mention a few), but there are a lot of components that makes the French election particularly important. To start with, France was one of the founders to the European Coal and Steel community – which later became the EU – in the 1950’s. The fact that France has been within the Union from the start, is the third biggest economy in the Union, and has a permanent spot in the UN Security Council, makes France a powerful and influential country in the EU. If France leaves, there is a risk that others will follow.

Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Source: Blandine Le Cain, Flickr.
Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Source: Blandine Le Cain, Flickr.

The latest polls shows that Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the leader of ”En Marche” (Forward), are likely the ones who are going to compete in the last round. Macron has increased in the polls as his rival, Francois Fillon, has been facing corruption charges. Macron is pro-EU and wants to make the relationship with Germany work even better to improve the EU: ”[…] for me one of the key elements was to repeat my willingness to restore a strong confidence between France and Germany and to build on this basis a new pro-growth environment and a broader cooperation between our two countries and at the European scale” he said in an interview following a meeting with Angela Merkel in Berlin.

Historically, France and Germany have been seen as the motor in the EU but in the recent years they have started to run out of fuel. A way to save the Union could therefore be to restore the Franco-German relationship.

Polls shows that Le Pen will be strong and be one of the winning candidates in the first round with around 26%, but Macron is predicted to win the presidency in the last election in May with 62% over Le Pen with 38%. Le Pen as a president is unlikely but not impossible. What could happen with the European Union if Le Pen wins and one of the most powerful members of the EU choses to leave?

The dynamic in the EU, which has already gone off balance with Brexit, would change radically with a Frexit. It would leave Germany as the only strong leading country in the Union. Italy would try to substitute but would have a hard time due to its unstable economy. Hypothetically this could make several EU members want to follow France and Britain’s example and exit the EU. That could in the long run mean the end of the European Union and a radical change in the political arena with possibly Le Pen, Trump and Putin as a powerful alliance.

 In about a month the French people will have made their decision, it remains to see if the result will make it or break it for the EU.

Olga Hurtig Parkrud

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