A close Presidential race in France

Marine Le Pen (53) is hoping to pip Emmanuel Macron (44) in the poll scheduled for April 24. Europe and the West will be in for a shock if Macron loses, a prospect that looks unlikely at the moment

A close Presidential race in France

Ashis Ray/ London

For Indian policy makers, a known devil would be far better than an unknown one. French President Emmanuel Macronis well known to the Indian government; his challenger in the run-off on 24 April for tenancy of the Elysee Palace Marine Le Penis comparatively unknown.

Le Pen, daughter of a far-Right torchbearer Jean Marie Le Pen, belongs to the National Rally party, previously known as the National Front, an extreme right formation.

She has climbed down from her earlier position of wanting France to leave the European Union (EU). But actions she proposes if voted to power include unilaterally reducing French financial contributions to the EU, restricting the rights of EU citizens in her country in what is a borderless, restraint-free union and rejecting the authority of the European Court of Human Rights. In the past she has called for French withdrawal from the Schengen Treaty and a reinstatement of national border controls. All these would pit her in an explosive confrontation with the EU.

A Le Pen presidency would potentially endanger France’s close relations with Germany since the Second World War. It would make common cause with the current racist regimes in Hungary and Poland. She also maintains France should be equidistant from the US and Russia.

Le Pen met President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2017; and questions have been raised about the source of her party and campaign’s funding. In 2014, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported, her party borrowed 9m euros from a Russian bank to finance its canvassing.

Her present campaign leaflets have featured a photograph of her with Putin. But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she said his action was ‘a clear violation of international law and absolutely indefensible’.

She has, like Donald Trump, been suspected of being promoted by Putin. The Moscow media reported that she favours a closer partnership with Russia and her party documents reveal it believes Ukraine has for quite some time been under the United States’ thumb and that North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) policy in eastern Europe is anti-Russian and unhelpful.

Such opinion in the climate of Russian hostility towards Ukraine may seem out-of-place in a western European nation, but does not appear to have eroded her base support among the electorate. Indeed, on 10 April, in the first elimination round to determine the finalists in the French presidential election, her vote share increased as compare her performance five years ago against Macron at the same stage.

Her outlook on economic affairs clearly appears to be insular. She stands for protectionism, not free trade. She is a critic of globalisation, of France being part of the European single currency of the euro. She has favoured replacement of the World Trade Organisation and an abolition of the International Monetary Fund.

Needless to mention, she is anti-immigration, anti-Islam, asserts her right to criticise Israel and is suspected of being anti-Semitic. Where India figures in her world view is unclear, except that in a television debate with Macron in 2017, she claimed: ‘I am best placed to talk to the India(‘s) (Narendra) Modi.’

In contrast, Macron with his fledgling six year-old centrist En Marche movement is a new phenomenon in French politics. Moreover, he represents continuity from an Indian perspective in circumstances where Paris seems to be strategically in step with New Delhi more than any other permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

The incumbent – in a less distinguished manner – also provides a shield to Modi from any adverse fallout from a French prosecutor’s probe into the Indian government’s controversial purchase of the Rafale multi-role combat aircraft for the Indian Air Force.

In fact, Macron was mentioned in the NGO Sherpa’s complaint to the prosecutor in 2021 in the context of him, as a minister in the socialist president Francoise Hollande’s government, awarding a significant tax break to Indian businessman Anil Ambani, who allegedly became a major beneficiary as an off-set partner in the Rafale deal.

In the first round, Macron posted an almost 5% lead over Le Pen – 27.85% to 23.15% - which was considerably more than an election eve opinion poll prediction of 1%. Five years ago in the second round, Macron translated a narrower first round advantage to ultimately garner 61% of the votes, thereby comfortably seeing off Le Pen.

Logically, the 7.07% vote attracted by another Far Right candidate Eric Zemmour will largely transfer to Le Pen, in effect increasing her support to above 30%. She might even benefit from a section who voted for the right-ofcentre Republican – historically the biggest political force in post-war France – but its nominee Valerie Pecresse could only muster 4.78% of votes in the first round. Besides, after such an unprecedented loss she immediately endorsed Macron for the second round. Others, too, like Yannick Jadot of The Greens, who got 4.63% of votes, socialist Anne Hidalgo, and Fabien Roussel of the Communist party did the same. The numbers combined would presumably boost Macron’s tally to over 40%.

But it is the impressive 21.95% captured by the left radical Jean-Luc Melechon, who came third in the first round, that holds the key to the final outcome. This quite charismatic 70-year-old urged his supporters to vote for anyone other than Le Pen. But did not specifically ask them to elect Macron.

So, unsurprisingly, no sooner the results were declared on 10 March, Macron was on the move with his slogan of ‘Nous tous’ – meaning All of Us. He hit the road the next day focussing on areas which voted for Melechon, shaking hands, kissing people and cuddling children. He met with tough questions on the prevailing high cost-of-living aggravated by a global supply chain disruption. But this did not deter him from ploughing into crowds and patiently listening, if not always agreeing. He is not shying away from Le Pen voters either.

Macron’s manifesto is mostly diametrically opposite to Le Pen’s. Despite being accused of softness, he has sustained phone conversations with Putin in a bid to bring about a ceasefire and dialogue between Russia and Ukraine. He is unapologetically pro-EU.

However, in a France battered by the illwinds of COVID-19, an economy in a state of recovering rather than fully recovered, the cost-of-living factor has become central in the electoral debate.

Where Le Pen’s response is characteristically populist – lower taxes across a wide spectrum and nationalisation in certain sectors – Macron pledges to triple the purchasing power buoyancy with certain exemptions in taxes and social security contributions to fuel this. On pensions – an important issue – Le Pen wants a retirement age of 60, while Macron wishes to raise this from 62 to 65.

One opinion survey in France projected 54% for Macron to Le Pen’s 46% in the final reckoning. This would be uncomfortable for the West in general and Europe in particular. But one should not forget that Macron held just one campaign rally before the first round, while Le Pen criss-crossed the country with shrill, virtually unopposed messaging. Now, Macron is on the warpath.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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