While the world takes careful notice, France finds itself in the middle of election season - the decision looming on who will become the next representative of Le Tricolore. With preliminary voting over, only two finalists are moving forward to a second, definitive, run-off election: Emmanuel Macron, and Marine Le Pen. Their political philosophies and affiliations contrast sharply, each candidate appealing to very different subsections of the French populace.
Results thus far have been historically significant. Candidates from the incumbent Socialist Party - alongside those from traditional Republican parties such as the Union for a Popular Movement - have been eliminated from the presidential race. As the BBC notes, these major parties have governed French politics for decades.
A Growing Worry in France: The Story of Immigration and Religion
However, the National Front (FN) has been growing in popularity in recent years. In accordance with upticks in radical terrorism and violence, domestically & regionally, French attitudes have been changing. The country has had something of a checkered past in relation to immigration and religious tolerance - highlighted by domestic policies targeting Muslim citizens.
France, traditionally a Roman Catholic nation, has witnessed a sizable influx of Muslim immigrants recently. A combination of Schengen Area membership and instability in the Middle East have fostered growth of the domestic, Islamic population - so much so, that France is home to the second-largest Muslim population in Europe, according to the Pew Research Center.
While this group only accounts for about 7.5% of the total population, recent immigration has become the basis for fear mongering, which has permeated French politics. Notably, members of the National Front have pushed such a narrative - traditionally opposing immigration while supporting xenophobic policymaking. Said party claims one of the finalists in the current presidential race.
Insights from Round One, and a Warning to Remain Cautiously Optimistic
First-round voting concluded on April 23rd. The results from the first round of voting are as follows:
Emmanuel Macron - 23.8%
Marine Le Pen - 21.5%
François Fillon - 19.9%
Jean-Luc Mélenchon - 19.6%
In preliminary second-round polling, as reported by the Telegraph, Macron holds a significant lead over Le Pen - garnering roughly 65% of overall support from pollsters. For the time being, it appears that previous supporters of Fillon and Mélenchon are flocking readily to Macron. Socialist and Republican leaders are backing Macron, according to the BBC. Comparatively, Le Pen has gained a much lesser following from new supporters following the race's transition to two candidates.
It is interesting to note that Republican supporters of Fillon and leftist supporters of Mélenchon are rallying around Macron, who is widely regarded to be a centrist. At this time, far-right policies of the National Front do not seem to appeal to wide swaths of voters, actively determining which new candidate to back. The Telegraph further notes that polls so far have been very accurate in determining how events will unfold, ranging from a minute +/-0.8% to 3.3% margin of error.
However, there is a word of warning: onlookers and voters alike must remember that just because Macron holds a higher degree of popularity, it will not necessarily remain that way. In addition, those who win round one are not necessarily guaranteed to win the overall election. Recent examples from the 2016 United States presidential election have proven that poll results must be taken with a grain of salt.
That message must resonate with voters representing both parties. Polls have the power to discourage voters from showing up, but that effect can be universal. Supporters of Macron expecting an easy victory may not feel pushed to turn out on election day. Likewise, Le Pen supporters who suspect a trouncing may elect to stay home as well. Regardless of one's political leanings, the principal lesson is that French voters must participate as if the race were dead even.
However, Le Pen faces an uphill battle - two weeks is a short time to change both hearts and minds. Furthermore, Macron's largest base of support is in Paris, France's largest population center. Having that advantage moving forward will only help the newcomer's cause.
Emmanuel Macron: A Newcomer on the Political Stage
Macron is regarded as a moderate candidate, perhaps with more liberal leanings with his political stances. Having never participated in electoral politics, Macron is transitioning into public service from a career in investment banking. However, Macron was an economic advisor under former president François Hollande (a Socialist Party member), according to the BBC. In 2016, he launched the political movement dubbed "En Marche," - neither left nor right wing. He resigned from the French government before officially entering the presidential race.
Championing policymaking favoring business and the private sector, the BBC notes his plans to cut 120,000 public-sector jobs in an effort to reduce the budget deficit. In addition, he wishes to simplify France's pension system, reduce corporate tax rates, and strengthen public education in underserved areas. Renewable energy initiatives are also on the roadmap.
The central tenet of his political agenda, however, is the most controversial. Macron wants to strengthen French ties to the European Union, while favoring heavier integration between Eurozone countries. His policies will rely more on interdependence within the EU, while supporting member nations. For these reasons, Macron is more of a globalist.
Marine Le Pen: Seasoned and Controversial
Le Pen is no stranger to the political stage; as former president of the National Front, she ran for presidential office in 2012. According to NSD's European Election Database, Le Pen finished in third behind front-runners Hollande and Sarkozy. In the first round of voting, she won 17.9% of the overall vote. Following a second-place finish this election cycle, winning 21.5% of the vote marks her best ever performance, as well as that of the National Front.
She is also the daughter of former National Front leader, Jean Marie Le Pen - a 2002 presidential candidate and polarizing figure in the French politics. Following in his footsteps, her campaigns have often been overshadowed by nationalistic, xenophobic rhetoric - having compared praying Muslims in the streets to the Nazi occupation in 2010.
Le Pen has made apparent her desire to spearhead a French renegotiation of its EU membership, while transitioning from the euro back to the franc. She favors a swift deportation of illegal immigrants, while reducing the scope of France's refugee program.
Favoring the closure of "extremist" mosques, which sounds rather arbitrary, Le Pen also seeks to institute a ban on religious clothing; this notably includes female headscarves, common in the Muslim faith. France has dealt with the controversy of limiting headscarves as part of dress, a key tenet of modesty and Islamic religious expression. Doing so would only promote the divide between Catholic and Muslim groups further, alienate new arrivals to the country, and undermine government secularity in policymaking.
The National Front's policies are staunchly nationalist, and their presidential nominee is no exception to the rule.
Looking Forward to Election Day
This election cycle will serve to illuminate some key values of the French populace, and highlight important trends in political thinking. It is a clash of globalism versus isolationism, cooperation versus exceptionalism, and will reveal the moral fiber of the French people. So far, the consensus appears to be one sided - what happens moving forward remains to be seen.
France's second-round election is set to be held on May 7th.