Does the French election result really mean the European Union is safe?

by Cathrin Schaer / 02 May, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - European elections

Posters for the French presidential election. Photo/Getty Images

Another day, another potentially historic election.

On a Sunday evening in late April, concerned citizens all over Europe were glued to the telly, watching the goings-on in the European Union’s largest country. A few hours’ drive away, French voters were potentially making history, deciding whether the EU was still viable.

The run-up to the French presidential elections had been confusing for everyone involved. Four candidates, touting wildly varying policies, polled almost neck and neck for weeks before the actual ballot. And no matter how many hands they shook or babies they kissed, a third of French voters kept saying they simply couldn’t make up their minds.

In France, the presidential elections are decided in two rounds. During the first round of voting, anybody gets to have a go. The second round, due to be held on May 7, is a contest between the two individuals who did best in the first.

The nightmare scenario for advocates of a united Europe would have seen Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, commonly described as an ex-Communist and “left-wing firebrand”, in the final. Both candidates believe it is time to consider a Frexit, a French exit from the euro. Given the tight race and an undecided nation, an upset along the same lines as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump was not totally out of the question. France, one of the six founding nations, might leave the EU.

By the end of a tense Sunday night, it was clear the final contest would be between the populist Le Pen and youthful independent Emmanuel Macron, a centrist and a pro-EU pragmatist. Given the forces arrayed against Le Pen in the final, it seems highly likely she will lose.

Righto. So those of us elsewhere in Europe worrying about the future of the EU could all just relax. Or could we? Because there was something else to consider. By the end of the voting that Sunday night, more than 40% of all of France’s eligible voters had made another very clear choice when they picked Le Pen or Mélenchon: about 13 million French people signed up for something else altogether, something more extreme – something, anything, but the status quo.

Obviously the individuals who support Le Pen and Mélenchon have different reasons for doing so. But they also have an inchoate rage in common. Possibly it all kicked off a few years back, with the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, that feeling that something was rotten in the state of modern democracy, and they had the tents, revolutionary signage and midnight drum circles to prove it.

The Occupy movement may have had a PR problem, but that attitude is not uncommon. You need only check the average Facebook feed to see that. There you will find an odd conflation of the further left and the far right, united in their anti-war, anti-immigration, anti-political correctness and anti-globalisation ranting and conspiracy theorising. They don’t like what’s going on in the world today. They don’t trust their governments and they certainly don’t trust the so-called biased “mainstream media”.

Pundits are already saying that if Macron wins on May 7, as most believe he will, it will still be tricky for him to establish a majority in the French Parliament. He doesn’t even really have a political party yet, and elections for French MPs are scheduled for mid-June. What may be even more difficult in the long term is working out how to appease the more than 13 million French who voted against him, his friends and everything he stands for.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the May 6, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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