Why Sunday’s French election matters to the world
It is not just the French populace that is holding its breath as the final round of presidential election on Sunday sees incumbent Emmanuel Macron face off against far-right Marine Le Pen.
For much of the world is watching too. At stake is the future direction of the eurozone’s second-largest economy, and the only EU state with a UN Security Council veto, and nuclear weapons.
While Macron is the modest favorite to win, Le Pen could yet spring a surprise that would rock the political mainstream in Europe and the wider world. For this election could reshape France’s post-war identity, indicating whether European populism is ascendant or in decline.
Le Pen is a pro-Putin, euroskeptic populist, despite the moderation that she now claims to preach. She has even questioned the need for NATO, asserting that it now exists to serve “Washington’s objectives in Europe” and called instead for closer ties with Russia.
Were Le Pen to pull off the biggest political surprise since the 2016 victory of Donald Trump, who has publicly supported her, she will therefore be in a position to form an axis with like-minded European leaders. This includes populist Viktor Orban who recently won a fourth consecutive term as Hungary’s prime minister, and possibly also Poland’s President Andrzej Duda.
Given her previous position of supporting Frexit (France’s departure from the eurozone and wider EU), there would also be at least a significant short-term hit to the European single currency, even though investors are far from fully pricing in a return of Macron. No matter the market’s cautious pricing, a Le Pen victory would see the single currency lose significant value against the US dollar and some other key currencies.
However, in the more likely event that Macron wins out, there could also be significant change on the horizon. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the recent AUKUS spat with the UK, US and Australia, a second term for the young liberal would spell the growing likelihood for increased cooperation in European defense.
Macron’s anticipated victory would be a fillip to liberal politics in not just France but also internationally.
Under Macron’s presidency, France’s defense spending has already risen by €7 billion with a target to raise it to 2 percent of the gross domestic product. In a second term, Macron would want to build up a joint European response to Ukraine.
Outside of these first-order policy issues, there would also be a wider political symbolism in a Macron victory. For the standoff between the liberal, centrist and his nationalist, far-right opponent is being watched closely globally too.
While it is very concerning that support for the far right in France’s first-round election was significantly more than 30 percent, a Macron second term would defy the march of conservative populism in many industrialized countries.
His potential victory thus would have significance well beyond France inasmuch as it would underline, yet again, that the political center ground can still potentially hold out against anti-establishment forces.
What Macron’s success appears to underline is that politicians of the center benefit from having an optimistic, forward-looking vision for tackling complex, long-term policy challenges such as addressing stagnant living standards, to help build public confidence around solutions to them. France has suffered from economic pain for many years, driving discontent with the status quo — as shown not just in the 30 percent of the electorate voting for the far-right candidate but the more than 20 percent voting for the far left.
Tackling tough-to-solve, first-order challenges in this context is a significant hurdle that centrist politicians across much of the world are widely perceived to have failed on, helping give rise to perceptions of a broken process. This is a factor Macron has navigated given the widespread distrust of the political class in France.
The perceived failure of conventional politics, of course, created not just the political window of opportunity for Macron, but also Le Pen too with the agendas. Contrary to what she and some other populists assert, there is no “silver bullet” that can address, overnight, complex challenges such as stagnant living standards.
Instead, long-term, concerted efforts are needed to better address these issues. As Macron appears to appreciate, such an agenda — which he recognizes requires significant reform in France in the coming years — can move toward demonstrating more effectively how fair, inclusive democratic politics can help to ameliorate the challenges that many people are experiencing in a world changing fast in the face of globalization.
So Macron’s anticipated victory would be a fillip to liberal politics in not just France but also internationally, showcasing the buffers to the spread of anti-establishment politics in Western democracies. However, the fact that the far right remains so strong shows that this cannot be taken for granted in the future, and his second term could now be key to determining the longer-term direction of the nation’s politics in the generation to come.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.