The French elections on Sunday are yet another notice that the polarizing divide in society and politics is not a uniquely American affair. It is a global phenomenon placing strains on a system that can surely not withstand much more. In an era of pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine War, food crisis, economic downturn, and supply shortages, the tug of war over who has the best solutions and who is at fault seems a political fight with few rewards and greater risks.
Macron and Le Pen
Emmanuel Macron has portrayed himself as the realistic candidate in contrast to the fantastic Marine Le Pen. Five years ago, he came to office from the finance industry, an outsider to French politics. Touting the values of liberal democracy and globalization, he promised to lure foreign investment to France with pro-business policies. A Macron victory on Sunday would be the first time voters in France have granted a second term to a French President in more than two decades.
Many of Macron’s policies and plans touted in 2017 when he first ran for president never took flight. Critics contend Macron’s policies increased wealth among the country’s elite and triggered the “yellow vest protests” in 2019. What hope remained among his most ardent supporters was interrupted by the global pandemic in 2020.
Marine Le Pen, the far-right challenger, fits the mold of Donald Trump, scoffing at globalists and the failed system their plans have policies appear to have produced. She has grown in popularity based on nationalist responses to domestic issues from immigration to inflation. She sees Vladimir Putin as an ally and vowed to reduce French support of Ukraine and opposition to the Russian invasion if she claims victory in Sunday’s elections. Le Pen also plans to scale back French involvement in NATO and the European Union. The Biden administration sees NATO and the EU as chief counterweights to geopolitical competitions with Russia and China.
Le Pen says she supports sanctions against Russia but not on items that cause the people of France to suffer, such as oil and gas. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine:
Le Pen proposed a Franco-Russian alliance, promising to forge one even if it provoked U.S. sanctions. She said Ukraine belongs in Russia’s sphere of influence and, in 2014, defended Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
The Setting in France
The Russia subplot in the French election may be less critical than simple economics. Le Pen’s greatest constituent support comes from regions of the country facing the most significant economic struggles.
Compared to many of its neighbors, France’s struggles are limited. The economy is finally growing in a post-COVID recovery, with employment booming to a ten-year high. Yet even with those high performance indicators, many French people feel left behind. The gap between rich and poor is widening. That is one of the reasons Marine Le Pen has found the rising costs of living such a helpful issue in drawing people to her base of support.
This same story could be told in many parts of the western world today. Voters from the US to Germany find themselves frustrated with globalization and foreign entanglements and more interested in the price of groceries and the retraction of familiar industrial landscapes that once supported their homes and families. Add to this mix the assertiveness of voices on both sides of the “woke” culture wars, and many voters appear fed up.
While Macron has busied himself with pursuing peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, Le Pen has gained ground by promising a higher minimum wage, slashing taxes on fossil fuels, interest-free housing loans, and a ban on Islamic headscarves. She has also promised a distinction in citizenship status among native-born French and “others.”
Voters supporting Le Pen, much like Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, are less loyal to a political platform and more devoted to personal interests that would benefit them immediately.
Both French candidates have promised to increase public spending, which experts warn will further widen the French public deficit. In France, as in much of the western world, political parties no longer fit their traditional platforms of liberal or conservative. A new view of politics in which populism is front and center has become normal.
Le Pen has not been subtle in her signals to move France away from the influence of both Germany and the US. She has promised a softer stance toward China. Macron pointed out that Russian financiers bolstered Le Pen’s campaign with loans in a recent debate. Le Pen challenged the suggestion that she was a puppet for Russia. Still, her coziness with Putin’s government suggests a Le Pen led France would mean a radical shift in the balance of American power and interests in Europe.
A Le Pen victory in the French elections could set off chain reactions across Europe. Germany’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already drawn domestic criticism, and a far-right French government could drastically alter the balance of power there and across the continent.
This goes beyond the war in Ukraine. Far-right politicians have been on the ascent from Hungary to Spain and Italy for much of the last decade. The trend appears only to be increasing in 2022.