Avant! The Choice Facing France

Riley Rice, Staff Writer

By the time this piece is published and you are reading this sentence, the second round of the French Presidential Election will have been decided. According to the New York Times, after the recent presidential debate, incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron leads his right-wing opponent, Marine LePen, with about 55 % of the vote. It may seem, then, that a Macron victory is all but assured. However, while unlikely, a shock LePen win is not impossible. Given this degree of uncertainty, France sits at a crossroads. In some ways, the 2017 French Presidential Election marked a moment in which the right-wing populist wave sweeping across the globe hit a roadblock, according to the New York Times. The question now remains: Will that roadblock hold, and what will that mean for France if it does not? 

Like that 2017 election, Macron and LePen are offering dramatically different futures for the French republic. Despite winning with a large margin in 2017, Macron has remained a solidly unpopular president during his time in office, according to a collection of polls by Politico. This is partially due to the nature of France’s multi-party electoral system, wherein only two candidates make it to the second round of voting, forcing voters from smaller parties to coalesce around the two remaining options or abstain from voting altogether. Given that many voters did not initially support the candidate who will go on to win the presidency, it makes sense that the winner will not immediately secure high levels of public approval. Despite this, however, Macron remains more popular now than at any time since 2017. It’s unclear whether this will be enough for him and his party, “En Marche!”, to hold on to the presidency. 

In 2017, Macron was seen as the moderate alternative to LePen’s far-right platform and, as a result, was able to pull support from moderate sections of both the right and left. This is the faction that Macron still commands today. However, the French economy is facing rapid inflation due to the war in Ukraine, and LePen has been sure to make this a central issue of her campaign. She has tried to paint Macron as out of touch with the plight of France’s working class, mainly attacking his proposal to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65, countering a policy that would allow for people to be able to collect their pension anywhere from age 60 to 62, as noted by the New York Times

LePen has backed off some of her more extreme anti-immigration positions since 2017 in a push to appear more moderate. However, she still promotes a ban on face coverings, a move that will almost uniquely target Muslim women. Macron has strongly criticized this move, saying that it will antagonize the Muslims living in France. LePen’s rhetoric is part of her isolationist attitude, which extends to her thoughts on the EU and NATO. LePen claims that, if elected, she has no concrete plans to pull France out of either organization as she has proposed in the past, according to the BBC. This does not mean she has fallen in love with those organizations. As NATO and the EU have vocally and materially supported the Ukrainian resistance, reduced cohesion in either organization could play directly into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Macron is not, however, some sort of angel in the eyes of the French people. While he has shown unwavering support for both NATO and the EU, especially in the most recent crisis, he has also faced strong opposition at home. From 2017 to 2018, a movement known as the Gilets Jaunes or Yellow Vests conducted 52 consecutive weeks of protest across the country, according to France24. The demonstrations began over hikes in fuel prices and expanded to include general economic hardships, rising inequality and an out-of-touch political establishment. LePen sought to capture the momentum in the movement, painting Macron as a career politician who could not emphasize the plight of the French people. 

So as election day begins in France, the French people have two distinct choices. They can continue with the status quo to which many of them are ardently opposed. Or they can embrace change, but a change that will isolate them from their allies and alienate one of their largest minority groups. Macron hopes to offer the French people a middle road, one distinct from the populism of LePen or her left-wing adversary Jean-Luc Mélenchon. However, while a Macron victory seems likely and the war in Ukraine may strengthen his incumbent advantage, it’s not clear whether that will be enough to convince the people that moderation is better than the right-wing gamble offered by LePen.