The French voted for their President over the weekend. In a field of eleven candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen emerged as the winners of the first round of voting, with 23.7% and 21.7% of the vote, respectively. The second round run-off election between the two will be held on May 7th.
Macron is the leader of the progressive centrist party he founded last year, En Marche! (i.e. Forward). Le Pen is the head of the Front National (i.e. National Front), a nationalist right-wing party she has led since 2011.
Macron and Le Pen represent two possible directions for the French Republic. On the one hand, France can continue to be part of the European Union with relatively open borders and a continual secession of powers to EU leadership in Brussels; a vote for Macron represents this choice. On the other hand, France could leave the EU (a so-called “Frexit”), close up its borders, and chart its own course; a vote for Le Pen represents this option. It is for this reason that Le Pen is often associated with the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the British “Brexit” vote; all three represent a country turning protectionist and isolationist.
In fact, Le Pen said over the weekend: “Either we continue on the path to complete deregulation, or you choose France. You now have the chance to choose real change. This is what I propose: real change. It is time to liberate the French nation from arrogant elites who want to dictate how it must behave. Because yes, I am the candidate of the people.”
In a couple weeks, the French will have their say. Macron is the expected winner, although there is the possibility that Le Pen may pull an upset (similar to Trump and Brexit). Nate Silver, the professional polling prognosticator, makes the bold prediction that one of them will win on May 7th (he says Macron will probably win, but Le Pen could end up winning).
However, the winds are definitely blowing in Le Pen’s direction and, indeed, towards nationalist sentiment in general. The European Union was the end by-product of a collective memory of the horrors of World War I and II on the European continent, as well as the threat of Soviet and communist expansion during the Cold War. With the world wars of the 20th century fading from memory into history, and with the Soviet/communist threat extinguished, the people of Europe are beginning to look inward and questioning the rationale behind European unification – asking themselves whether they are better suited to running their own affairs than political elites in Brussels.
In fact, in France, Le Pen’s National Front is the most popular political party for 18 to 34 year-olds. The terrorist attacks in France over the last few years and the violence and social upheaval caused by refugees throughout Europe will likely drive more people into Le Pen’s camp. The world will wait with anticipation to see what course the French chart on May 7th.