European Union Will Be Put to Crucial Test in French Runoff

The runoff election to determine the next leader of France sets up to be a referendum on the European Union, and the contrast could not be sharper.

Emmanuel Macron, who quit his post as economy minister in the outgoing government of Socialist President Francois Hollande, presented himself as a centrist who would make France more pro-business. Among the 11 candidates in the race, Macron — who finished first in Sunday’s first round of voting, according to exit polls — was the most pro-Europe. He handed out European Union flags at rallies and declared it “an honor” to speak in front of an EU flag unfurled at a rally last week.

“It is a historic moment, and I assume the immense responsibility now of the defense of the French Republic.”

“We are one of these stars,” he said, according The Express newspaper in London. “Never forget, because so many died for that.”

He added: “I know what France was before this flag. It was a valley of tears.”

While Macron was handing out EU flags, his opponent in the May 7 runoff refused to interviewed in front of one. Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-populist National Front, declined to appear on France’s TF1 television channel last week until the EU flag was removed.

“I want to be the president of the French Republic. I don’t want to be European Commission president,” she told the TV station, according to Yahoo News. “I consider the EU has done a lot of harm to our country.”

That line ought to have a ring of familiarity to Americans, who frequently heard President Donald Trump say that he was running to president of the United States, not the world.

Speaking to supporters Sunday evening in France, Le Pen made clear she would not back away from the themes that have animated her campaign and her party.

“It is a historic moment, and I assume the immense responsibility now of the defense of the French Republic,” she said. “It’s unity. It’s security, it’s culture, its prosperity and its independent. And I also see it as an act of French pride.”

Le Pen said voters will choose between a country that will “disintegrate without any borders, without any controls” or a France with secure borders. Though she did not use the word “Establishment,” she delivered an indictment of French politics that would be familiar to anyone who watched Trump’s improbable rise to power in the United States.

“The system has tried, through all its ways, dubious as they are, to thwart our victory,” she said. “But now the great debate is going to be held. The French people must seize this opportunity because the enormous challenge of this election is the wild globalization which puts our civilization at risk.”

The last time that Le Pen’s party came this close to power was in 2002 when her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the runoff against sitting President Jacques Chirac. In the second round of voting, Chirac drew the reluctant support of the French Left and the mainstream Right and thumped Le Pen with 82.8 percent of the vote.

Since taking control of the party in 2011, Marine Le Pen has worked to banish its anti-Semitic roots and bring it into the mainstream. The next two weeks will offer a test of how successful she has been. From early indications, she will faced the same kind of unified opposition — at least among the politicians.

Francois Fillon, the center-right Establishment candidate who finished third, urged supporters to back Macron.

“The National Front, created by Jean-Marie Le Pen, is known for its violence and its intolerance,” he said in his concession speech. “It’s economic and social program would lead our country to bankruptcy. And to this chaos you have to add the chaos of Europe withdrawal.”

Fifth-place finisher Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party’s standard-bearer, told supporters that they had no choice but to support Macron even though he was not of the Left.

“We have to make sure that we smash as strongly as possible the National Front,” he said.

The dynamics of France and of the world are much changed from 2002, however. Britain’s vote last year to break away from the European Union exposed growing anxiety about the European project. Le Pen was not the only candidate who had promised to withdraw from the EU. Left-wing populist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon made that a central plank in his campaign, which finished a close fourth, just behind Fillon.

Mélenchon spoke to supporters but refused to concede defeat until all of the votes are counted.

If Le Pen is to expand beyond her right-win populist base, the key might be to reach fellow travelers on the Left.

“It high time to free the French people from arrogance that wants to dictate how it is to behave,” Le Pen told supporters.

  1. Emmanuel Macron
  2. European Union
  3. France
  4. French election
  5. Marine Le Pen
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