France’s 2017 elections will impact domestic and international security
With little over two months to go before presidential elections in France, the stakes are higher than ever in what looks like an increasingly polarised contest. The results of the elections will have a strong impact on domestic and international security policies.
The French will go to the polls in April and May to vote in one of the most decisive European elections of 2017. With financial scandals rocking the French centre-right party (Les Républicains) and a weakened Socialist party, many fear that the possible election of Marine Le Pen’s National Front could affect the stability of the Eurozone and its economy. In addition to the economy, domestic security and geopolitical alliances will be major issues in the year ahead.
Following the deadly string of attacks that France experienced in 2015 and 2016, the new government’s ability to deal with the terror threat while maintaining social cohesion will be instrumental in reducing political risks. The frontrunners in the May elections have diverging agendas for handling the terror threat, ranging from the National Front’s call to increase the budget of the military to the Socialists’ community-based response to terrorism. The presidential campaign is also pitting the staunchly pro-European centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron against Le Pen and her Eurosceptic agenda.
Responses to the terror threat
The candidates’ responses to the terror threat are divided along party lines, with a clear difference between conservatives and liberals. Marine Le Pen’s tough stance on immigration goes hand in hand with a series of measures to tackle the terrorist threat, including removing French nationality from dual citizens, restoring military service and maintaining the controversial state of emergency declared by François Hollande’s Socialist government in the wake of the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
François Fillon, the conservative candidate and leader of the centre-right party Les Républicains, has similarly vowed to increase military budget, build more prison places and maintain tight border controls. Fillon nonetheless faces growing pressure to withdraw from the race as a result of the fake-jobs scandal plaguing his campaign – a situation which has buoyed Le Pen’s campaign. There is a risk that Marine Le Pen’s victory could fuel anti-immigrant sentiment and rekindle community tensions already stirred by the controversial burkini ban last summer.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the maverick Emmanuel Macron who leads the movement En Marche (“On the Move”) is running on an economically and socially liberal platform but has so far given little detail about this program. He nonetheless stated that he would not adopt any new measures on terrorism and is promising to lift the state of emergency and reinforce community policing. Macron faces accusations from his opponents of offering a weak response to terrorism. If a new attack happened on French soil, little or no response could destabilise and make a Macron government unpopular.
As Fillon faces criminal charges and the Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon continues to lag behind in the polls, a run-off between Le Pen and Macron looks like the most plausible scenario. This situation would also amount to a clash between two diametrically opposed visions for international security.
International policies: Macron’s pro-European agenda vs Le Pen’s rapprochement with Russia
Le Pen and Macron offer radically opposed solutions to the major international and security challenges facing Western Europe, including the conflict in Syria and the migration crisis. Le Pen’s candidacy is emblematic of a European shift towards Russia. Le Pen reiterated her pro-Russian sympathies throughout her campaign, declaring for example that the annexation of Crimea by Russia in February 2014 was not “illegal” and calling for an “alliance between the US, France and Russia” in a speech that laid out her vision of a multipolar world.
The fact that François Fillon also embraces a rapprochement with Russia signals a change in French conservatism’s views on international affairs, breaking away from the pro-American campaign led by former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. Marine Le Pen’s links to Russia have reawakened concerns of Russian intervention into French elections and led to tougher fight against cyberattacks and potential hacks into candidates’ campaigns.
Marine Le Pen’s victory in the May elections would have a major impact on France’s international policy. On the one hand, it would directly affect European cooperation on the refugee crisis and widen Europe’s divide on immigration, lending further strength to the opponents of Angela Merkel’s “open door” policy. On the other hand, it would influence the balance of powers in the Middle East and add weight to Russia and Iran’s support for maintaining Bashar al-Assad in power, as evidenced by Le Pen’s recent declaration that Bashar al-Assad is a safer option for Syrian than Islamist movements.
Emmanuel Macron on the other hand has a strong stance towards Putin’s foreign policy. The centrist candidate has led a liberal, pro-European campaign and has vowed to counter the rise of the far-right in France. Unknown on the international stage until a few months ago, never elected, Macron is becoming the favourite candidate for the presidency as Fillon, and to a less extent, Le Pen’s campaign is affected by expenses scandals. A Macron victory would offer a major boost to internationalist forces in Europe and to European cooperation. On the issue of migration for instance, Macron opposes the closing of national borders and is calling instead for a European-wide concerted policy.
While most polls suggest that Macron would beat Le Pen in a final run-off, the situation remains uncertain and Le Pen’s victory cannot be ruled out. What is certain is that the results will be decisive in the shaping of domestic and European security.