UNITED NATIONS — Though the political setting of the upcoming French presidential election bears superficial comparison to the U.S. election of 2016, the contest is anything but an American rerun.
While an establishment favorite is opposing a firebrand nationalist, the jarring reality remains that this is the first runoff election in the history of the Fifth Republic since 1958 where neither of the major parties have a candidate.
Two political outsiders are facing off on May 7th.
Emmanuel Macron, (39) the former Socialist economics minister and newly-minted “wonder boy” of French politics. And, Marine Le Pen the re-branded longtime fixture of the Euro-skeptic right National Front and a political lightning rod.
Despite never having held elected office Macron, if elected, would become the youngest man to lead France since Napoleon.
A former Socialist, Macron emerged out of nowhere as the darling of the establishment with burnished insider credentials and near unquestioned political acceptability to a wide swath of young and entrepreneurial French voters.
Macron embraces “globalization,” long a dirty word across the French political spectrum. He supports the European Union and scoffs at Britain’s BREXIT. A man of the center left, Macron could offer Clinton/Blair type economic policies, admittedly rare for any French politico.
His En Marche (Forward) movement has attracted not only widening support but an enthusiasm not often seen in the staid realm of French political circles. But is he the ultimate card of the ruling Socialist Party and the discredited President Francois Hollande?
Macron remains the Hologram candidate, a real but different shade and reflection on every issue to conform to what you see at the moment. He’s certainly pro-business but lacks the support of a formal political party in the National Assembly to push through his policies.
Marine Le Pen, led the FN away from her father’s deserved political wilderness. She remains Statist and a hardline rightist (certainly not an American conservative) who believes in Big government.
A populist politician, she loathes the EU and the EURO currency, and supports unencumbered French sovereignty. As a NATO skeptic, she’s not surprisingly an admirer of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
She’s anti-American in a way which makes her quite acceptable to many marginalized and disaffected older Socialists and even communists who lost their jobs to globalization or to immigration.
Macron remains a committed Europhile. Le Pen has ridden the wave of anti-EU sentiments which however probably crested last year at the time of Britain’s BREXIT.
Sadly the once-dominant Republican right narrowly lost with Francois Fillon. The traditional mantle of the late President Charles De Gaulle is missing in the mist and miasma of political uncertainty.
The day following the first round vote, the center-right daily Le Figaro summed it up in a bold headline “The Right; Knocked Out.”
Surprisingly much of the center and moderate right has thrown its support to Macron. Many conservatives fear a Le Pen win would trigger a FREXIT to leave the EU.
The official Socialist candidate was laughed off the slate with a piddling 5 percaent. The extreme-left contender Jean-Luc Melenchon gained a surprising 19 percent despite his bizarre policies and plans, one of the more ludicrous being trashing NATO and forming a French alliance with Cuba and Venezuela.
Noted French political commentator Franz-Olivier Giesbert called the campaign “lamentable.”
But either Macron or Le Pen will inherit a France whose economy has deteriorated under the tepid Socialist presidency of Francois Hollande. Unemployment remains solidly over 10 percent and jumps over 20 percent for the young. Many workers in manufacturing industries have lost their jobs. France is increasingly uncompetitive. Terrorism has become an entrenched threat.
A suffocating socialist welfare state saps not only taxes but especially economic incentive. No wonder that young French entrepreneurs often flock to Britain or the USA to pursue their dreams. Macron promises to trim, however politely, the bloated bureaucracy.
Yet Le Figaro adds editorially, that “much of Macron’s popularity comes from his vagueness.”
How do his views on the identity of France balance with the country’s role in globalization?
Given Macron’s strong chances in the polls, we will likely have the next five years to find out.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]