A stark choice: On French presidential polls

The French follow their hearts in the first round, and their heads in the run-off — or so goes the cliché about France’s politics. But the first round of this year’s presidential election was held in such a highly charged environment that voters did not have easy choices before them. And the outcome was unusual, though not totally unexpected. For the first time in the nearly 59 years of France’s Fifth Republic founded by Charles de Gaulle, neither of the mainstream left and right parties made it to the run-off, a clear indication of anti-establishment sentiment running high. All these years, France has been ruled either by a Socialist party leader or a conservative Republican. In the May 7 run-off, the fight is between Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist with no substantial political experience, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right populist leader of the National Front. Mr. Macron, who campaigned on a pro-Europe political platform with promises of economic reforms and better governance, won 23.75% of the vote, while Ms. Le Pen, who during the campaign repeatedly attacked the EU, globalisation and France’s immigration policies to drum up support, came second, polling 21.53%. François Fillon of the Republican party finished third, while Benoît Hamon of the ruling Socialist Party came a distant fifth.

Opinion polls predict that Mr. Macron will win the second round as a majority of voters regard Ms. Le Pen and her party as dangerous for France’s democracy and its values. This is not the first time a National Front candidate is entering the second round. In 2002, Jean Marie Le Pen, Ms. Le Pen’s father, shocked France by making it past the first round, but lost by a massive margin to Jacques Chirac, the incumbent. Large sections of the French political spectrum, from the conservatives to the leftists, then rallied behind Mr. Chirac to defeat the far-right, Holocaust-denying Mr. Le Pen. This year as well, as soon as the results of the first round were out, most of the 11 candidates, including Mr. Fillon and Mr. Hamon, announced support for Mr. Macron. If this support reflects in the popular will, Mr. Macron will repeat history. Still, Ms. Le Pen’s chances cannot be ruled out. She has brought the National Front from the dark fringes of French politics to the mainstream by what analysts call “detoxifying” it — toning down the overt racist rhetoric of her father and broadening the party’s appeal by mixing a strong anti-globalisation position with extreme nationalism. Her attacks on open borders and immigration resonated with at least sections of the youth at a time when unemployment is in double digits. In the coming two weeks, the political landscape is likely to get more polarised. It is a stark choice for French voters. Their decision will have a profound impact not just on France, but Europe as a whole.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 10:53:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/a-stark-choice/article18201399.ece

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