The future of Europe after the French presidential election – European Council on Foreign Relations
On April 20, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen took part in a highly anticipated television debate as part of their campaign for the second round of the French presidential election. Before the first round on April 10, Russia’s war on Ukraine had dominated the presidential race, which usually revolves around domestic issues. The exchange between Macron and Le Pen lasted more than two hours and covered everything from purchasing power, Europe and foreign affairs to public services, climate change and energy security.
On paper, the contest between the candidates appears to be just a replay of the 2017 vote. However, the situation is different this time around. Polls indicate that Macron will become the first French president in 20 years to be re-elected. But his margin of victory is expected to be 10 percentage points lower than it was in 2017. And, unlike previous elections, he is now the subject of significant anger, mistrust and defiance. public.
As for Le Pen, she had to prove that she had learned from her meltdown during the 2017 debate. As a result, she halted all campaign events for two days before the debate to prepare for her television appearance. Le Pen managed not to collapse. She was calmer and more controlled than last time but, ultimately, Macron was better than her at clarifying technical points, as a poll published last night seemed to confirm. Interestingly, the bar was quite low for her and relatively high for him as he needed to defend his record and prove he was still the best person to hold the position over the next five years.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon almost beat Le Pen in the first round, winning 21.95% of the vote against 23.15%. From then on, the far-left leader became the kingmaker of the second round. Many Mélenchon supporters are so suspicious of Macron that they are reluctant to vote for him in the second round. And this despite the fact that the far-left leader said in his April 10 concession speech that “not even a voice from La France Insoumise [his party] should go to Marine Le Pen”. Some Mélenchon supporters even claim to see no difference between Macron and Le Pen. According to a poll conducted by La France Insoumise, 37.65% of people who voted for the party plan to vote white in the second round, while 28.96% are in favor of abstention and 33.40% a vote for Macron. . Still, it’s impossible to predict how they will vote on April 24.
In part because of the political reconfiguration that Macron helped initiate in 2017 by founding La République en Marche, the center-left Socialist Party and the right-wing Republicans have collapsed. Today, the French political landscape is organized around a broad center field with Macron, the far left with Mélenchon, and the far right with Le Pen and Éric Zemmour.
For Macron as for Le Pen, the challenge now is to seduce supporters of Mélenchon. To remain president, Macron will need to be more vocal on issues such as hospitals, schools, pensions, climate change and women’s rights. Le Pen, for her part, addressed Mélenchon’s supporters immediately after the announcement of the results of the first round. And she has since addressed most of her public announcements to them. For example, during the debate, she spoke of the difficulties experienced by single parents, farmers, workers, vulnerable people and others who feel hurt by Macron as an “elite president”.
There are two subjects on which the divergence between Macron and Le Pen is particularly clear: Europe and foreign policy. Their pro and anti-EU reputations minimize the differences between them. Over the past five years, Macron has constantly tried to make the European Union stronger economically, defensively and normatively. He tried to increase the union’s geopolitical ambitions in an increasingly competitive environment.
Le Pen has dropped the idea of a French withdrawal from the EU (as she proposed in 2017) but has now embraced the rhetoric and strategies of illiberal leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. She calls on France to stay in the EU and transform it from within. It aims to create a union of the bare minimum and gradually destroy even that. Le Pen has vowed to form an alliance with Orban and, in office, would likely extend it to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Such an alliance would end the unprecedented cohesion and unity the West has shown in helping Ukraine fight back against Russia. Its foreign policy would pose a terrible threat to France and the EU: it would turn away from the Franco-German alliance and replace the primacy of European law with the primacy of French law, in violation of the European treaties.
As an ECFR study published in March 2022 shows, Europeans have generally trusted France to be the EU’s diplomatic leader. Once the French presidential election is over, the winner will have to assume this role. But they should do so in a more inclusive way – by raising the EU’s empowerment ambitions, consulting with allies and partners, and developing more instruments of geopolitical power. In this sense, the French presidential election will shape the future of Europe.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of its individual authors only.