On a cold spring morning, 46 million French people voted in an election the likes of which they have not seen not seen since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Back then, France saw a musical chair of governments, with shifting party coalitions – much like our aaya ram, gaya ram governments of the nineties. General de Gaulle put an end to this by establishing a presidential form of government.
In the current presidential elections, two fundamental issues are at stake: Democratic order at home and the future of the European Union (EU). Both were challenged by a party, the National Front, headed by a young, dynamic and shifty woman, Marine Le Pen. She is strongly against some eight million Muslims living in France and wants an end to immigration from Muslim countries. She also wants to drastically limit France’s relationship with the EU; which, incidentally, France had helped found alongside Germany.
Both these issues are at the heart of this closely fought election. All four principle contestants for the presidency had sharply opposing views on them. Le Pen was opposed to immigration, wanted tighter surveillance against eight million Muslims living in France (including limiting their constitutional rights as citizens) and of course against the EU; she wanted to break up the euro, which she described as a knife in the ribs of France. In short, she threatened the values on which the French Republic was founded by the Revolution of 1789.
Her opponents' political ideology leant towards the centre-right, extreme left and centrist liberalism. The centre-right, led by Francist Fillion, is for staying in the EU but harsh on immigration; the extreme left is for withdrawal from the EU and NATO and supports radical equality at home. It is the centrist liberals, led a young man of 37 years, Emanuel Macron, who embodies modern liberalism. He wants to deepen France’s economic and political ties with the EU and is for equal rights for all living in France – a clear reference to French Muslims.
In the first round of this election, the liberal Macron and illiberal Le Pen emerged as the two winners; the former got 23.8 percent votes and the latter 21.5 percent. The two will battle for the presidency of France in the second round and whoever breaches the 50 percent mark will become the president. The two round system is designed to eliminate the mixed verdict the first-past-the-post parliamentary system often throws up. India is all too familiar with it, and the French system could serve as a possible cure.
So, what will be the outcome of the second round? Early trends suggest that Macron will win against Le Pen. It seems that the French have an understanding among themselves that anyone who threatens the core values of the republic must be eliminated, albeit democratically. Le Pen’s racist remarks and her rejection of European unity deeply hurt the values of the French Republic, as per most French people. So, all those, from extreme left and right, who did not vote for the liberal Macron will vote in the second round for him, just to keep Le Pen from the presidency.
In many ways, the contest between Le Pen and Macron is much like the fierce contest one witnessed between US President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton last November: Trump stood for 'America first' and was against NATO, globalisation and immigration, whereas Hillary stood for a liberal world order and equal citizens’ rights for all Americans. Hillary won the popular vote but lost by electoral college votes. This may not happen in France as a majority of French see Le Pen as a threat to democracy. The extreme left and the centre-right parties have already told their voters to shift their votes to liberal Macron.
The future of the EU looks more optimistic than it did at the time of Brexit last summer, when Britons voted to exit from the EU. Le Pen had expressed her happiness at the results of the Brexit vote and the US presidential election. She must have thought that her moment had come at last, and that she would now become president and pull off a "Frexit" – Fraance's exit from the EU. If Macron wins, which is most likely, and if the German election – due in September – produces a strong pro-EU candidate, the EU will receive a strong fillip.
Trump’s America is now isolated from Europe. Trump had openly sided with Le Pen and had come out against NATO, EU, globalisation, immigration and against a liberal world order. He has been defeated on all counts by the American Congress, the courts and from inside, by his own Republican Party.
The French people’s verdict in the second round of the elections, in that sense, can save liberal democracy.
The author has lived and studied in France and written extensively on international affairs in newspapers and journals in India and abroad.
Updated Date: Apr 24, 2017 18:35 PM