French choose between an internationalist and a protectionist president | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 06.05.2017
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French presidential election

French choose between an internationalist and a protectionist president

France is electing a new president who will have to bring together a country that is heavily divided. And that challenge is unlikely to be easily met. Lisa Louis reports.

The French are choosing their next president this Sunday after an election campaign that has emphasized a deep rift in society. The new leader will face the Herculean task of reuniting the country.

Former economics minister and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron is facing the far-right National Front's (FN) Marine Le Pen in the decisive final ballot.

They came first and second in the first round of voting after what was perceived by many as the country's most surprising and unpredictable election campaign in history.

French voters in the US and Canada cast their ballots on Saturday.

The candidates of the two established mainstream parties were eliminated in the first ballot. The center-right Republican Party's Francois Fillon, initially the clear front-runner, stumbled over financial scandals involving his wife and children. Benoit Hamon, the center-left Socialists' candidate, seemed unwilling to reunite the left wing of his party with its centrist block. His almost far-left project convinced only a small fraction of his party's electoral base. Hamon captured a mere 6 percent of the vote and was even overtaken by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who achieved a record 19.3 percent.

Infografik Karte Frankreich Wahlen 2017 nach Departements ENG

Macron and Le Pen were almost level in the first round

'Finalists epitomize two parts of French society'

Instead, two outsiders are now facing each other in the runoff vote. That's unheard-of in recent French history, but not a coincidence, thinks Bruno Cautres of the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po University in Paris.

For him, the two finalists epitomize two parts of French society opposed to each other.

"Our society is split, but no longer along the lines of the left and the right," he says. "Instead, the divide is between those who embrace globalization and those who feel left behind."

Cautres feels that the outcome of the first ballot is the culmination of something that has been in the making since the mid-1990s. That's when the effects of globalization started to make themselves felt in France. Ever since, unemployment has been hovering around 10 percent.

Many of the better educated who are well-equipped to capitalize on globalization are now supporting the pro-European and business-friendly 39-year-old Macron. He intends to reduce public debt and implement market-orientated economic reforms.

Emmanuel Macron (Reuters/R. Duvignau)

Macron had a career as an investment banker before entering politics

Le Pen supporters see globalization as a threat

But those who feel left behind and see globalization first and foremost as a threat tend to vote for the EU-sceptic Le Pen. She promotes economic protectionism and wants to levy import taxes. The far-right candidate brandishes anti-immigrant rhetoric and promises to reintroduce a national currency, while maintaining the euro as a common European currency to protect against unfair competition by companies in other EU member states.

Nicolas Lebourg, a historian at the University of Montpellier and specialist in far-right politics, says the FN's supporters don't include just the needy or those who live in the countryside.

"A lot of their voters live in wealthy areas that are next to underprivileged zones. That proximity confronts these people with the possibility of losing out to globalization. One example is the well-off Paris suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine," he explained.

Le Pen's voters seem to be in the minority though - at least according to current polls. Macron is the clear front-runner with about 60 percent of the vote, whereas the FN is set to capture only around 40 percent.

Frankreich Wahl - Presse (DW/T. Rooks )

Le Pen has vowed to "get France sorted out again"

Is a surprise still possible?

But Macron supporters worry the predictions might be getting it wrong - as in the UK and the US, where polls didn't predict the Brexit vote or the election of Donald Trump.

Adding to that worry is the possibility of a high rate of abstention. The French seem less shocked by the FN's result than in 2002. At the time, Marine Le Pen's father Jean-Marie was the first FN candidate to reach the second ballot in a presidential election. Millions of voters took to the streets to demonstrate against the rise of the far right, and Le Pen was defeated with a record score of 80 percent by conservative Jacques Chirac.

This year's May Day demonstration in Paris, by contrast, gathered only tens of thousands of people. Some of the protesters were campaigning for a "Ni ni" - a "neither nor." They feel Macron is too much of a free marketeer and not an acceptable alternative to Le Pen.

USA Statement Donald Trump zum Luftangriff auf Syrien NEU (Reuters/C. Barria)

For many, the specter of Trump's seemingly unlikely victory hangs over the French polls

That point of view was put forward by far-left candidate Melenchon, one of the few politicians who have refused to clearly support a second-round vote for Macron to prevent the far right from coming to power.

But Jerome Fourquet from French polling institute Ifop doubts non-voters will be able to sway the election results.

"For Le Pen to win at this stage, the rate of abstention would have to reach almost 40 percent and only take away votes from Macron - that's not something we are detecting in the polls," he said at a recent conference at the Paris-based Jean-Jaures foundation.

"And I don't think the polls can get it that wrong - the gap between the two candidates is just too large and not something like 52-48 such as in the UK referendum."

TV debate has widened gap

The gap between Macron and Le Pen widened even further after the recent TV debate. The far-right leader came across as overly aggressive and badly informed - especially regarding the economic program that she proposes to get the country back on track. Macron, meanwhile, took apart Le Pen's proposals, underlining their inconsistencies. Even Le Pen's supporters criticised her poor performance and lack of presidential stature.

Frankreich Wahl TV-Debatte - Marine Le Pen & Emmanuel Macron (Getty Images/AFP/E. Feferberg)

Two-thirds of viewers felt Macron won the TV debate

The publication of hacked emails from the Macron campaign team on Friday night is unlikely to be much of a game-changer. Hackers believed to be linked to a Russian group known as APT 28 and to the American far-right posted nine gigabytes of data online.

But French media have refrained from reporting on the documents' content ahead of the second round of voting after officials warned that publishing the data could represent a breach of the law. It seems the leak came too late to have an impact on the outcome of the elections.

But even if a Macron victory seems highly likely at this stage, it will not by any means spell an end to the challenges confronting the leader of the En Marche! (On the Way!) movement.

"Macron will have to face the Herculean task of bringing the country back together," says researcher Cautres.

"It's almost impossible to achieve that: Whatever he does will alienate one large part of our deeply divided country. And five years are just not long enough to tackle France's problems - especially when it comes to unemployment, growth and our failing education system."

Präsidentschaftswahl in Frankreich (picture alliance/dpa/AP/C. Ena)

Could Macron be the uniting force France needs?

A strong leader for the Gallic village

His colleague Lebourg is a little more optimistic.

"Macron just needs some economic success stories so that people get the impression that things are getting better and don't constantly fear slipping into poverty."

The historian thinks that Macron could even bring the different parts of society back together.

"France is like a Gallic village: We constantly hit each other until a strong leader comes along and takes everybody with him."

"So if he does come along, things can get better, as we can finally feel like one proud nation again."

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