The first round of the French presidential election is taking place on Sunday, April 23, and with the UK officially leaving the European Union, this election could be pivotal in determining the future of the EU. While the UK has always maintained a certain distance from the EU and its policies, France is a founding member and the number two contributor to the EU budget after Germany. Unlike the UK, France has adopted most of the EU’s laws, discarding the franc for the euro and opening its borders under the Schengen Area. But several of the country’s eleven presidential candidates are pushing for renegotiations, a more prominent role for France within the EU, or even a “Frexit,” which could mean the effective end of the EU.
The EU was originally created as the European Coal and Steel Community after WWII in order to establish lasting peace in Europe by uniting members in an economic partnership. Over the years, it has expanded to include twenty-eight member states and manage an increasing range of economic but also political and cultural issues. In 2016, the EU was the world’s second-largest economy, below China and above of the US. The EU allows its members to have an influence on the global stage, as it is represented as a unit in the World Trade Organization, the G-20 and the G7.
Ahead in the polls at 24 percent is Emmanuel Macron, who created his own centrist political party, En Marche!, last year and identifies with neither the right nor the left. Macron comes from the banking industry and served as the minister of economy in 2014. He is running on a pro-EU platform, advocating for more economic and military integration. He wants to start a “democratic debate” throughout the EU to determine the direction it will take in the future, since he considers the current system to be insufficiently respectful of national sovereignty. At the same time, Macron is in favor of France intensifying the fight against terrorism to achieve greater independence and power on the international stage. As for refugees and asylum-seekers, he believes that it is “Europe’s duty” to help them, although he would only accept people who meet certain requirements. His platform has been devised to appeal to as many people as possible by being both generous and severe, pro-EU and against its current institutions. It is somewhat unclear what concrete policies he would implement regarding the EU.
Front National candidate Marine Le Pen is right behind Macron in the polls with an estimated 23 percent of the vote. Her party is known for its far-right ideology, Euroscepticism and anti-immigrant history. Marine Le Pen has tried to distance herself from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who led the party until 2011 and is known for his xenophobic, nationalistic and anti-Semitic comments and beliefs. At the center of her platform is “reestablishing French sovereignty,” which she feels is being undermined by European control in Brussels. She plans to follow the example of the UK and organize a referendum to determine whether France will remain in the EU. If the French people decided to stay, she would renegotiate the terms of France’s membership, attempt to dissolve the euro, and close the borders. Her presidency would considerably weaken the EU, which would either lose one of its wealthiest members or be forced to give up some of its power to national governments
Next in the polls at 19 percent is Les Républicains candidate François Fillon. While he is a member of one of France’s major parties, his campaign has been undermined by the “fictitious employment” scandal: he is alleged to have paid hundreds of thousands of euros to his wife and children for little to no work. He maintains his party’s traditional view of the EU as a strong economic organization that allows France and other members to protect their economic interests abroad. He also plans to renegotiate the Schengen Area to establish strong external borders and increase security within the area. While he is in favor of the EU as an economic organization, he believes that France should reclaim a strong independent role in international politics by reinforcing its national defense, allying with the United States, and working with Russia and China. He wants to restructure the EU into a “Europe respectful of nations,” led by France and Germany. It is still unclear how Fillon would get Angela Merkel on board with his plan for the EU, since they disagree on several issues, including immigration policy.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the candidate from the far-left party La France Insoumise, and his position in the polls at 19 percent is a surprise in this election. He is a Euroskeptic and wants France to renegotiate many European treaties or even withdraw from those he considers “tyrannical.” Once the renegotiations were over, he would organize a referendum in which the French people would choose whether to stay or to leave the EU. “We change the EU or we leave it,” he announced a few hours after the Brexit vote last June. The process Mélenchon envisions would be very similar to Brexit—and to what Le Pen is proposing. They differ in that Mélenchon is optimistic about France’s ability to renegotiate treaties without having to leave the EU entirely, whereas Le Pen wants to restore France’s “legislative, territorial and economic sovereignty” by leaving the EU.
Benoît Hamon is the last of the candidates who have a chance to make the runoff election on May 7. Hamon is at a disadvantage in the polls, which put him at 8 percent, because he is a member of the Parti Socialiste of President François Hollande. The end of Hollande’s presidency is marked by an extremely low approval rating and he is not running again. Although Hamon comes from the left wing of his party and opposes some of its leaders, his association with the incumbent president is harmful to his campaign. His policy regarding the EU is to democratize the governance of the euro and establish a common minimum wage to encourage growth throughout Europe. He is also in favor of more European cooperation on defense. Even if he were elected, which now appears unlikely, he would face a lot of internal opposition to several of his policies regarding the EU.
The diversity of the candidates in this election is staggering and speaks to the divided nature of global politics. As with the recent US election, France’s choice in new leader will have international repercussions.
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