Two of 11 candidates are left standing after France’s first-round presidential election April 23: a far-right populist and a centrist never before elected to office. Voters will choose between them May 7, and the future of the European Union could be at stake. Maxime Larivé, the associate director of the EU Center at the University of Illinois, is a French citizen who has lived in the U.S. for 13 years. His research focuses on European security and defense policy, and he has studied public perceptions of the EU for the European Commission. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
What’s different in how France elects its president, versus the U.S.? And what’s different about this particular election?
All French elections – presidential, legislative and municipal – are organized around a two-round system featuring a broad range of parties, as opposed to the dual-party system in the U.S., with primaries and then one general election. The president is elected through a direct vote, rather than through an electoral college, and appoints a prime minister who forms the government.
This presidential election is quite interesting in that for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, since 1958, neither a Republican nor Socialist candidate is present in the second round. For the first time, the two candidates, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! (Onwards) and Marine Le Pen of the Front National, embody the political anti-establishment.
Le Pen’s far-right message has gotten surprising traction in this election. Can she win?
In the era of Brexit and Trump, it is undeniable that Le Pen can become the next president of France. In 2002, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, shocked France when he made it to the second round; it was considered an accident. In 2017, Marine Le Pen was expected to be in the second round and, in fact, to receive higher numbers and lead the first round. This was not the case, even though she managed to attract 21.4 percent of voters, the highest results in the FN’s history.
Historically, the FN was created as a counterforce on the extreme right, bringing in many pro-Vichy and pro-colonization sympathizers, among others. The self-conscious process of “dediabolization” (decontamination) of the party began in 2011 when Marine Le Pen inherited the leadership of the party. The only element that changed is the narrative and image of the party, while the substance of the political agenda remains true to its early days.
There was a terrorist incident in the heart of Paris just a few days before the recent vote. How much do you think that might have influenced the outcome?
The current climate in France and in Europe certainly plays in favor of the extreme right and even the conservative right. However, it is uncertain whether the recent attack, killing a policeman, affected the decision of the last undecided voters or attracted moderate right-wing voters towards Le Pen. Certainly, the attack plays in favor of her overall narrative of France on the brink of collapse, in a clash of civilization, a broken society. The use of fear as a political tool figures in the arsenal of extreme rights around the world.
Part of Le Pen’s popularity has been based on her suggestion that France leave the EU, and this follows Great Britain’s vote to do the same. How does this fit within her larger message?
Le Pen frames the world into a black-and-white portrait, patriots versus globalists. Her platform is embedded into the lost past of French grandeur and exceptionalism. The EU is the cause of all trouble, with its open borders, market economy and multiculturalism. She envisions a traditional France protected behind walls, with a protectionist trading model and a foreign policy balancing the U.S. and Russia. The Brexit vote was about regaining national sovereignty and full control of rules of governance.
With over 21 percent of the French electorate attracted by this argument, Le Pen is a major piece of the Western populism puzzle. Her influence is real, with potentially lasting consequences on France, the EU and the Western liberal order.
What do you think many Europeans are missing in their perception of the EU and its value?
The European Union offers a set of institutions and a framework solidifying peace and relative growth at home and national leverage on the international stage. However, the EU has a problem of perception and appeal at home. The domestic narratives across Europe are that Brussels governs and undermines national sovereignty.
Quite to the contrary, the European Union is the sum of its member states. The political decisions remain in the hands of the heads of state and government. In fact, the design of the EU has been effectuated over the last 60 years through intergovernmentalism and intense bargaining among member states.