France Presidential Elections 2017: A contest between differing national visions
As France goes to polls, what will triumph? Emmanuel Macron's pro-Europe approach, or Marine Le Pen's white-hot nationalism?
Paris, 6 May 2017: In the quiet village of Seine et Marne, about 70 km from Paris, there is no one on the streets this rainy Saturday morning and the town hall — a tiny single-storey building — wears a bare look.
Arnaud Rousseau, the mayor, points to the floor-length white curtain and the tiny booth in the corner of the ground-floor room: this is where the 184 eligible voters in this village will go to cast their ballot. In the front of the room is an empty glass ballot box with two padlocks: here the votes will be collected and counted, once polling for the French presidential election ends on Sunday night.
This farming village voted for Marine Le Pen of the extreme right-wing party, the Front National (FN), in the first round in April — she captured 47 of the votes of the 144 votes cast. Her rival in Sunday’s election, and the favourite to win, the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, managed just 23 [both candidates reached the run-off from a field of 11 candidates].
“The main reason why farmers vote for Le Pen is sheer despair,” said Rousseau, who is also the president of a farming union. “You don’t think rationally, you act emotionally… People are attracted by what Le Pen tells them. They feel, we tried the right, we tried the left, now we want to destroy the system. There is a mistrust.”
Rousseau, a tall, thin man, is a fourth generation leader of the village, and though he is based here, has travelled widely and believes that agriculture will stand to benefit from France remaining in Europe.
Macron is pro-Europe, Le Pen is not. And her brand of white-hot nationalism, based on restricting migration and withdrawing from the European project has grown to find more takers, particularly among France’s vexed rural and semi-rural populations.
In the first round in Paris, for instance Le Pen managed to get just 5 percent of the vote, compared to Macron’s 35 percent. He also did well in other big cities, whereas Le Pen did well in the north, an area with a high rate of unemployment.
“The working class is for us,” said a Front National member and candidate for the parliamentary elections in June. “There is a rightful anger in the population. The future is bright for us.”
Populist anger has spurted in various parts of the globe, and both Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory have emboldened far-right wing movements elsewhere. Though Le Pen is expected to win no more than 40 percent of the vote on Sunday, the fact that she has managed to sanitise her party and bring it from the extremist end of the spectrum to a mainstream place, has in itself been a dramatic transition of the past few years.
“It is important for us to give hope to the people,” said the FN candidate. “The existing system has failed, we need a new system.”
FN’s vision for France includes returning to the franc as currency, withdrawing from Europe and tightening borders. Sunday’s election will essentially be a contest between two vastly differing visions for the country. Polls have Macron winning with 60 percent of the vote.
As expected, minority voters are rallying to vote against Le Pen, who is seen as xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic. She has threated to ban religious symbols — such as the turban or burqa — in public should she come to power, a position that has naturally estranged her from Muslim, Sikh and Jewish voters. Imran Dar, 60, a Pakistani origin French citizen will be voting for Macron, for his social and economic positions. “The EU is a system that has been working well,” he said. “We don’t want to leave.”
Still, many are disgusted by both candidates, a sentiment that is likely to manifest in a higher than usual proportion of “blanc” votes or votes for neither candidate. Many on the left are likely to take this route. One estimate put it as high as 7 percent, compared to an average of half that number in the past. The turnout for the first round was 78 percent but the turnout on Sunday is expected to be 75 percent, which would make it the lowest turnout since 1965.
There is the fear that this could all boost Le Pen’s chances, even though they might be slim. And the traditional parties have swiftly moved to build a front to block her further ascent.
At a meeting on Friday night high profile leaders from different parties, including former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, gathered to emphasise that voters should vote for Macron rather than simply vote against Le Pen by casting a null vote. “Every vote not expressed is a vote for Le Pen,” said Pierre Moscovici, a former French minister and current European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs, “The challenge is not just to beat her, but to beat her severely so that populism is not just defeated, but it is also not in a position to come back.”
Not far from where this meeting was taking place, retired tour guide Sabine Le Duault, 70, was resting on the grass by the side of the road. She appeared unperturbed by the possibility of an upset Le Pen victory. “We were surprised by Trump’s victory too,” she said. “But I think our system is strong enough to eliminate the extreme right.”
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