Why this week’s French elections are important for the rest of the world



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PARIS — As war scorches the eastern edge of the European Union, French voters will vote in presidential elections whose outcome will have international implications. France is the second economy of the 27-member bloc, the only one with a UN Security Council veto and the only nuclear power. And as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues the war in Ukraine, French power will help shape Europe’s response.

Twelve candidates are vying for the presidency, including incumbent and favored President Emmanuel Macron who is seeking a new term amid a challenge from the far right.

Here’s why the French elections, which will take place in two rounds from Sunday, matter:

NATO

French President Emmanuel Macron and centrist candidate for re-election delivers his speech at a rally in Paris on Saturday, April 2, 2022.
AP

The Russian war in Ukraine has given Macron an opportunity to demonstrate his influence on the international stage and polish his pro-NATO credentials in election debates. Macron is the only frontrunner to back the alliance, while other candidates have differing views on France’s role in it, including giving it up entirely. Such a development would deal a huge blow to an alliance formed 73 years ago to protect its members in the then-rising Cold War.

Despite NATO’s declaration of “brain death” in 2019, the war in Ukraine has prompted Macron to try to give the alliance a renewed sense of purpose.

“Macron really wants to create a European pillar of NATO,” said Susi Dennison, Senior Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “He has used it for his shuttle diplomacy on the conflict in Ukraine.”

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon wants to leave NATO outright, saying it will only cause quarrels and instability. A NATO-skeptical President Melenchon could be a concern, especially for Poland, which has a 1,160-kilometer border with territory now controlled by Russia.

Several other candidates want to see either reduced involvement in the alliance or a complete withdrawal. Though unlikely, France’s departure from NATO would create a deep rift with its allies and alienate the United States.

European cooperation

French conservative candidate for the upcoming presidential election Valerie Pecresse delivers her speech at a campaign rally on Sunday, April 3, 2022 in Paris.
French conservative candidate for the upcoming presidential election Valerie Pecresse delivers her speech at a campaign rally on Sunday, April 3, 2022 in Paris.
AP

Observers say Macron’s reelection is a real opportunity for increased cooperation and investment in European security and defense – especially with a new pro-EU German government.

Under Macron’s watch, French defense spending has risen by €7 billion euros ($7.6 billion) with the aim of raising it to 2% of gross domestic product — something leaders, including Putin, are watching closely. . In his second term, Macron would almost certainly want to build a concerted European response to Ukraine and confront Russian threats.

A far-right alliance?

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen delivers a speech at a campaign rally on February 5, 2022 in Reims, eastern France.
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen delivers a speech at a campaign rally on February 5, 2022 in Reims, eastern France.
AP

This election could reshape France’s post-war identity and signal whether European populism is on the rise or in decline. With populist Viktor Orban winning a fourth straight term as prime minister of Hungary days ago, eyes are now on France’s resurgent far-right candidates — most notably National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, who wants to ban Muslim headscarves on the streets. , and halal and kosher butchers, and drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.

“If a far-right candidate wins, it can create some sort of alliance or axis in Europe,” said Dennison of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Le Pen has been tweeting photos in recent days of her shaking Orban’s hand. She advocates a Europe of strong nation states.”

That axis could include Polish President Andrzej Duda, a right-wing populist and ally of Donald Trump. It has alarmed observers.

“More than 30 percent of French voters now say they will vote for a far-right candidate. If you count Melenchon as another extreme, anti-systems candidate – that’s almost half of the entire voting population. It’s unprecedented,” Dennison said.

Far-right candidate Eric Zemmour has dominated the French airwaves with his controversial views on Islam in France and immigration.

But even centrist Macron upset the feathers in Muslim countries two years ago when he defended the right to publish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. That happened during a tribute to a teacher who was beheaded by a fundamentalist for showing the cartoons to his students as part of a lesson on free speech.

A friend of America

The US often touts France as its oldest ally — and from Russian sanctions to climate change and the United Nations, Washington needs a trusted partner in Paris. France is an indispensable transatlantic friend for America, not least because of its status as the only permanent member of the UN Security Council of continental Europe with veto power.

Despite the bitter row between the US and France last year over a multi-billion dollar deal to supply Australia with submarines – humiliating France – President Joe Biden and Macron are now on solid terms.

Macron is clearly the only candidate with history and credentials in the American relationship. Everyone else would start all over again at a time of great geopolitical uncertainty,” Dennison said.

Unlike Macron, an Elysee owned by Zemmour or Le Pen would likely mean less preoccupation with issues the US sees as a priority, such as climate change. “They may not prioritize the large economic cost of keeping the Paris climate accord alive and the potential to limit global warming to 1.5%,” Dennison added.

Migration on the continent

In light of the massive influx of migrants into Europe last year, France’s stance on migration will continue to have a strong impact on countries on the periphery and beyond. This is especially the case due to its geographic location as a stage in the journey of many migrants to the UK

A migrant ship capsized in the English Channel last November, killing 27, sparking a row between France and the UK over who was responsible. The British accused France of not patrolling the coast well enough, but Macron said this was an impossible task. Observers do not view France as a particularly open country for migrants within a European context and see Macron as a relative hardliner on migration.

But Le Pen or Zemmour would likely adopt stricter policies than Macron if they either prevail, such as reducing social allocations to non-French citizens and limiting the number of asylum seekers. Some candidates have supported a Trump-esque construction of border fences.

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