Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) is riding a wave of nationalist sentiment toward the upcoming 2017 presidential election. Le Pen has been performing well in first-round polling, a sign that the FN, which has traditionally belonged to the nationalist fringe, might have its biggest success yet. Facing candidates plagued by scandals and extreme unpopularity, Le Pen will most likely see her way to the runoff—one step from the presidency. Here are her opponents:
François Fillon, leader of the center-right Republicans, is currently under investigation for embezzling public funds. Fillon allegedly paid his wife and children to be parliamentary assistants, yet they never showed up for work. Before the scandal broke, Fillon was performing very well in public opinion polls, sitting consistently in first or second place throughout January. However, in February, he dropped into third place behind Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Further, the former prime minister’s party has tweeted an anti-Semitic attack against Macron, and Fillon himself has insulted autistic people. Though many have demanded that Fillon step down, he remains in the race. The only hope that seems to remain for the man who ran as “Mr. Integrity” is that the loyal supporters of his once most-popular candidacy will mobilize. He should not count on this happening; a combination of this scandal and a harsh mouth have hurt him thus far and will most likely be his downfall when the French go to the polls.
Benoît Hamon of France’s Socialist Party (PS), the party of current unpopular president, François Hollande, will likely feel the negative effects of this association. Hollande’s approval rating reached a low of 4 percent late last year, after which he declined a bid for re-election. The most unpopular president in French history, Hollande has made headlines for calling the poor “toothless” and for the perception that he is unable to tackle terrorism. While Hamon is a different candidate with different policies, the fact that he is a member of Hollande’s party, and that Hollande has been advising him, will not serve him very well.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left Parti de Gauche (PG), seeks to be the last president of France’s Fifth Republic. Mélenchon’s policy proposals include drafting a new constitution for the Republic, instituting a 100 percent marginal income tax rate on all earnings over €360,000, and staunchly defending the environment. Supported by the French Communist Party, Mélenchon will come off to most voters as too radical, and this will likely cost him a bid in the runoff.
That leaves Emmanuel Macron. At age thirty-nine, Macron would be the Republic’s youngest president ever. Under Manuel Valls’s socialist prime ministry, Macron served as minister of the economy, industry, and digital affairs, but left the government to establish the centrist En Marche! He supports an open-door policy towards immigrants and refugees, is a supporter of the European Union, and is an economic liberal. He stands as Le Pen’s biggest competitor.
In terms of policy, Le Pen and Macron are polar opposites. Le Pen is proposing that France exit the European Union, substantially decrease immigration, and pursue a France-first policy. (Sound familiar?) She has accused Macron of being an immigrationiste and a candidat du système, an establishment candidate.
The French get to vote twice for president. There is the initial election between all candidates and the runoff between the top two vote-getters. Polling indicates that Le Pen is almost guaranteed to make it to the second round, where she will most likely face Macron. Though Le Pen is currently in first place in many first-round polls, opposing parties are expected to unite against her in the second round of the election. However, this is not guaranteed. Unlike her nationalist counterparts in the United States—namely, President Trump—many of Le Pen’s policies mirror those of her socialist opposition. She wants to lower the retirement age to sixty, raise corporate taxes, and ensure that small businesses are not burdened by taxation. In this way, in the runoff election, Le Pen can attract small business owners, older Frenchmen, and other Hamon voters—voters who could also just stay home. Furthermore, those wary of free trade could be moved by Le Pen’s insistence on ensuring that all trade policies benefit France.
Macron and Le Pen have already began looking toward the second round, sharpening attacks against each other. Macron has called Le Pen’s FN the parti de la haine, or the “party of hate.” Le Pen, on the other hand, has sharply questioned Macron’s love of country, suggesting that he wants to rid France of true patriots. Further, Macron looks at the French colonization of Algeria as a “crime against humanity,” while Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and predecessor as the head of the FN, is said to have engaged in torture during the colonial period—a source of personal conflict between the two Le Pens. Macron’s insults towards the FN, along with Le Pen’s responses, are common tactics on both sides of France’s nationalist movement, but, coupled with Macron’s aforementioned comments regarding the colonization of Algeria, seem to have taken a more personal tone.
This election is just another test of nationalism in Europe. It comes soon after Dutch national elections in which the nationalist Geert Wilders suffered terrible losses, even though he, like Le Pen, was predicted to do very well—pollsters thought that his Party for Freedom (PVV) could feasibly win the most seats in the Dutch Parliament. His loss, however, does not necessarily mean that the French elections will go the same way. Due to the Dutch parliamentary system and coalition governments, Wilders would not have been in a governing positioning, even if he had won a plurality of the votes; the PVV was never a serious threat to the Dutch government. Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, is very much a threat to France. The French would do well to learn from Brexit and America’s 2016 election and treat Le Pen as a serious contender. Many British and American voters stayed home during their countries’ respective tests of nationalism. If the same thing happens in France, coupled with increased FN support from disillusioned socialists, Madame Le Pen might be the next présidente de la République.
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