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What do the French presidential candidates represent?

The polls were right this time. The first round of the French presidential election ended as they predicted. Thirty-nine-year-old centrist Emmanuel Macron will be facing off against right-wing extremist Marine Le Pen on May 7.

The French voters will head to the polls for the second round to choose between an ex-banker who is new to the political scene and Le Pen, the heir to the xenophobic National Front. Surveys show that voters will unite behind Macron, not because he has a major agenda but due to the "anyone but Le Pen" sentiment.

France is facing a political divide that can be easily perceived through the geographical concentration of the votes. This divide is not the traditional right-left divide. It is about the image of France, the identity of the French people.

Le Pen echoes U.S. President Donald Trump with her protectionist, nationalist tone. She is skeptical of the European Union, NATO and similar international alliances. She was also not shy in revealing her plan of pulling France out of the euro common currency market, a return to the franc and support for a Frexit; exiting the EU like the exit Britain is currently working on. Vladimir Putin was her biggest supporter, and there were rumors that he funded her election campaign. Trump also made some positive remarks on her behalf prior to the elections.

On the other hand, Macron is an economic liberal. He was the former minister of the economy for President Francois Hollande's government. He quit the Cabinet just recently in 2016 to form his political movement En Marche! - translated to mean "On the move!" or "Forward!" He wants to encourage entrepreneurship, reduce corporation tax, and he plans a shift to renewable clean energy. He embraces the EU and has been critical of both Brexit and Trump. One can easily conclude that Macron and Le Pen are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum.

The latest terrorist attack in Paris where a police officer was killed may have given Le Pen a boost, as it is impossible to ignore the role of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and immigrants in this election.

For Le Pen, France is just for the French people. She has campaigned for anti-immigrant policies promising radical reductions in the numbers of immigrants France will accept. Her promise appealed to the portion of French society that feels economically and socially threatened by immigration.

Following the latest attack, she called the government weak and called for a total war against terror, exploiting the already present fear in the public, which returned to her as votes last Sunday. It is important to note that this was the first election in France's modern history to take place under a state of emergency. Many polling stations were guarded by armed police and soldiers, which increased the unease of the public.

Macron favors strong external borders for the EU, but expresses no dislike for immigrants. He calls nationalism a major threat to France. In an interview following the recent terrorist attack, he stated that the terror threat is an inestimable problem and will be part of the daily life of Europeans for years to come.

On May 7, French voters will face a choice between an integrationist or isolationist France. The negative effects of globalization, economic problems, unemployment, security, immigration and dissatisfaction with the present order that were unable to deliver the promises of liberal democracy will continue to haunt France.

Following the elections, Le Pen called herself the candidate of the people. Macron promised to be the president of the French people, a president of patriots faced by the threat of nationalists. Whatever the final result, Le Pen and her ideas will not go away and will be affecting the social and political structure of the country for years to come. Let's not forget that even though the surveys expect a clear win for Macron, there's no sure thing. Don't forget last year's surprise Brexit vote and Trump's victory in the U.S.

Karel Valansi, Daily Sabah 25 April 2017


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