As France goes to the polls to elect a new president, observers are wondering if the vote will follow a populist trend that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
Here are a few important things to know about the upcoming vote, as explained by Joshua Cole, an American scholar of European history.
1. How does the French presidential electoral process work?
Prospective candidates must gather 500 signatures of support from French elected officials and have their candidacy approved by the Constitutional Court. A presidential term is five years, and all citizens 18 years and older can vote. This year the first round of voting is on April 23. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, there will be a second-round runoff between the top two candidates on May 7.
2. Is president an important job in France?
The prime minister is the head of the French government, but the president outranks the prime minister and has important powers in national defense and foreign relations.
The president also chooses the prime minister from the majority party in parliament. Occasionally, the president is forced to choose a prime minister from a different party than his or her own. This is called “cohabitation.” This year, the legislative elections will be in two rounds on June 11 and 18.
3. Who are the most popular candidates for president?
Eleven candidates are running, with five seen as the main contenders. Two candidates are leading the polls: Marine Le Pen of the extreme right-wing National Front and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist and former economics minister, who is not associated with a traditional party.
Surprisingly, the candidates from the parties who have dominated presidential politics for almost 40 years – the Republicans and the Socialists – are seen as unlikely to make the second round. Republican François Fillon has been hobbled by scandal. Socialist Bénoit Hamon has found little traction among voters tired of the current socialist president, François Hollande.
A candidate from the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has seen his chances of making the second round improve in recent days.
4. France has been under a nationwide state of emergency since November of 2015. Is security a big issue?
Multiple terrorist attacks in 2015-2016 have made security more important than ever. Article 16 of the French Constitution gives the president the power to declare a state of emergency and then exercise executive and legislative powers simultaneously, ruling directly by decree. Given the likelihood of more terrorist attacks, this possibility has received a great deal of attention of late. A group of lawyers and jurists recently published a letter arguing that the Constitution gives too much power to the presidency and that electing Le Pen was a danger to French democracy.
5. During the 2012 election, some said then-President Nicolas Sarkozy was afraid to visit immigrant neighborhoods. How are these so-called “banlieues” playing into the election this time?
The banlieues are zones of economic and cultural exclusion, where problems of chronic unemployment are concentrated. Not all French Muslims (about 8 percent of the population) live in the banlieues, but some banlieues have large Muslim populations. Le Pen’s campaign painted the banlieues as zones of failed assimilation and a danger to France, blaming the residents for their own isolation.
6. What are the chances Le Pen will win?
Le Pen is popular among many young people, who seem not to be bothered by the National Front’s long association with racism and anti-Semitism. She is also supported by those who are opposed to European integration. Most polls say a second-round runoff between Le Pen and Macron is likely, and that Macron will win this match-up. With more than a third of the electorate saying they’re undecided on whom to vote for in the second round, the result may end up being much closer than predicted.
The European Union endured a series of political shocks and strains in 2016 that threatened to tear the bloc apart: an ongoing migration crisis; the United Kingdom’s vote in June to exit the union; lackluster growth and stubbornly high unemployment in the euro zone; terrorist attacks that killed and injured scores; and surging support for populist and anti-EU political parties.
Against this recent history, there can be no doubt that 2017 will be one of the most important and fateful years in the EU’s six-decade history.
There are five acute dangers facing the EU in 2017. These are not isolated challenges. Instead, they are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. Addressing one of them would be a formidable test. That all five are happening simultaneously presents an unparalleled trial for European leaders.
The rise of the far-right
Voters in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and possibly Italy will vote in national elections in 2017. Populist, anti-EU parties are expected to perform strongly in all four contests.
France’s presidential election is likely to pit former prime ministerFrançois Fillon and nominee of the center-right Republicans against Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, in the second round of voting in May.
Marine Le Pen- Far Right leader in France-Wikipedia
Support for the National Front has surged in recent years. In the 2012 presidential election, Le Pen received less than 18% of the vote, failing to make it to the second round runoff. But recent polls show her receiving as much as 24% of the vote in the first round this year.
While pollssuggest that a Le Pen victory is unlikely (current forecasts show Fillon getting 65% of the votes to Le Pen’s 35% in the second round), following a year of electoral surprises — from Brexit to Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election – it would be foolish to write Le Pen off completely.
In the Netherlands, polls show the anti-immigration, anti-EU Party for Freedom in the lead ahead of parliamentary elections in March. Party leader Geert Wilders proposes the closure of mosques in the Netherlands, as well as a Dutch exit from the EU.
In Germany, for the first time since the end of World War II, the far-right could make substantial electoral gains in parliamentary elections, likely to be held in September. The Alternative for Germany party is currently polling around 13%, virtually ensuring that it will clear the 5% threshold and attain representation in Germany’s federal parliament.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains popular, and her Christian Democratic Union party leads comfortably in the polls. But her decision to allow more than a million migrants into Germany last year has been attacked from all sides of the political spectrum, and her position could be weakened further if there are additional terror attacks in Germany, following the truck attackon a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016, which killed 12 people.
The Christmas market attack in Berlin showed that Europe remains vulnerable to terrorist violence.
According to Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, 151 people died from terrorist attacks in the EU in 2015, and a further 360 were injured. The same year, there were more than 200 failed, foiled, or completed terrorist attacks in EU member states, and more than 1,000 people were arrested on terrorism-related charges.
Europol estimates that as many as5,000 Europeans have gone to fight in Syria or Iraq, and hundreds have returned home. Many others across Europe have become radicalized online or by local recruiters. They have formedterrorist cells across the continent, lying dormant but capable of planning, financing, and executing deadly attacks.
Tensions between the West and Russia are at their highest level since the end of the Cold War. Over the past several years, Russia has emerged as a much more aggressive and unpredictable power, invading and annexing Crimea in 2014 and supportingseparatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Since 2012, Russia has beenrapidly modernising its military, making it a much more formidable threat to European and NATO defense planners. Russia is building and expanding bases in the Arctic, has made big increases to its military budget, conducted several large-scale military exercises that simulate war with NATO, deployed its military in foreign conflicts such as Syria, stationed nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad region bordering Poland and Lithuania, and upgraded its military equipment. Russian fighter planes also regularly enter or skirt the airspace of NATO countries.
European and NATO military planners worry that Russia might seek to expand its power and influence in the Baltic states. A recent war-gaming exercise from the Rand Corporation showed that Russia could seize one of the Baltic capitals within 60 hours.
Following revelations that Russia hadinterferedin this year’s US presidential election, signs indicate that it may try to do the same in European elections this year. In an attempt to destabilize or disorient Europe, Russia is pursuing a disinformation and propaganda campaign intended to bolster politicians and political parties sympathetic to Russia and its interests in Eastern Europe.
Russia has also cultivateda number of fringe or extremist political groups across Europe, such as the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary and the National Front in France.
A new migration crisis
Following a controversial agreement reached between the EU and Turkey last March, the number of migrants reaching Europe dropped dramatically in 2016. According to the UN refugee agency, 359,000 migrants and refugees reached Europe in 2016 — down from more than a million in 2015 – with Italy now the top destination.
The United Nations estimates that 2.8 million refugees are currently in Turkey. A return of migration on the scale of 2015 would put significant stress on Europe’s system of open internal borders, threatening to permanently undo one of the EU’s signature achievements.
A teetering euro-zone
For almost a decade now, the euro-zone has been in a near-permanent state of crisis. Far from ushering in a period of greater political unity and economic integration in Europe, the euro has introduced new grievances and inequalities among the countries that use it.
Fed up with austerity, tepid economic growth, and an unemployment rate ofjust below 10% in the euro-zone, which is much higher for young workers, many Europeans have become disenchanted with the single currency. Across the 19 countries that use the euro, only 56% of respondents in a recent pollsaid it was “a good thing” for their country, down five points from last year. Only 41% of Italians polled thought the euro was good for Italy.
The failed referendum on constitutional reforms in December 2016 presented a further dose of economic and political uncertainty for the euro-zone’s third-biggest economy. Italy’s anti-establishment, anti-euro Five Star Movement is currently polling neck-and-neck with the Democratic Party, still led by Matteo Renzi, who resigned as prime minister after the referendum.
One country’s exit from the euro-zone could set in motion an unraveling of the entire currency area. The political fallout from the economic pain and uncertainty that would result would be immense.
End of an era?
The European project of political and economic integration has been one the greatest achievements in modern history. For decades, it has brought peace and prosperity to a continent shattered by cycles of war, economic turmoil, and political extremism.
But European integration has never proceeded in a linear manner. For much of its history, the EU has stumbled through one crisis after another. As Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of European integration, said, “I have always believed that Europe would be built through crises and that it would be the sum of their solutions.”
But Monnet also said that solutions had to be intelligently proposed and skillfully applied. That is the challenge that confronts European leaders today: can they apply the right solutions to Europe’s present troubles? They must show citizens that the EU can help address the current difficulties, rather than making them worse. Otherwise, the very future of the union may be at risk.
Two days after the U.S. presidential election, Marine Le Pen – the leader of the right-wing French National Front – tweeted out congratulations to Donald Trump.
During a controversial BBC interview that aired a few days later, Le Pen summed up how she believes the American election will affect her own electoral chances. She said Trump’s victory “renders possible what had been presented as impossible – that what the people want, the people can have.”
Brexit and the election of Trump have given hope not only to Le Pen, but also to her European confrères, such as the leader of the Dutch nationalist right Freedom Party Geert Wilders, as they look forward to their own elections in spring 2017. As savvy politicians, they are exploiting the American election for their own purposes.
Yet, despite the temporal coincidence and surface similarities, I believe the election of Trump in the U.S. is fundamentally different from what is occurring in Europe. The Trump phenomenon is not simply an American iteration of European populism. It’s also potentially more dangerous.
As I argue in my book “Illiberal Politics in Neo-liberal Times,” populism – or extreme nationalism – began to gain ground in Europe during the 1990s as a reaction against the accelerated process of European integration. European populists sought to preserve their national institutions against encroaching Europeanization – a term they use sometimes interchangeably with globalization. Globalization is a force that has contributed to putting large numbers of people, particularly young people, out of work and facing a bleak future on both sides of the Atlantic.
In contrast, Trump questions the legitimacy of political institutions and the reality of facts in a manner that European populists do not.
Let’s consider the important ways that America and Europe differ by first turning to the European example.
An imperfect union
Le Pen has been gaining ground since the 2012 French presidential election. Recent polls place her on track to move to the final round of the 2017 presidential elections, although most analysts agree she’s unlikely to win the presidency.
For years, scholars have debated whether the lack of direct popular participation in EU governance mattered.
They got their answer beginning in 2008 when economic crisis and austerity politics proved that democracy did matter. European citizens began voting in national parliamentary elections for parties that advocated economic protectionism. For example, in 2011 the True Finns scored 19 percent of the vote. In 2010, the Swedish Democrats had their first breakthrough. In 2012, the Greek left populist party Syriza polled at 16.8 percent and is currently the main party in Greece, and the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn broke through at 7 percent.
The festering European economic crisis was joined by two additional crises in 2015 – the refugee crisis and the security crisis that public terrorist attacks generated. All of this was played out in mass media and provided the final push for nationalist parties across Europe to come close to achieving political power.
An all-American election
Donald Trump is more than an Atlantic Ocean away from Marine Le Pen.
As I see it, Trump’s electoral victory is a peculiarly American product of working-class unemployment, a deep distrust of and resentment of educated elites and a celebrity culture that valorizes street smarts.
We should not forget that Trump was elected at the margins – razor-thin layers of non-college-educated voters living in rural Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania appear to have tipped the outcome of the election.
Trump tapped into what Richard Hofstadter identified in 1966 as “anti-intellectualism” in American life in a way that his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton never could.
Trump’s 3 a.m. tweets exploited social media. His tweets and retweets generated many more millions of followers than traditional media. In a popular cultural world where “Dancing with the Stars” and “American Idol” tell their audience anyone can be a “star,” Trump reigned supreme. On his reality television show “Celebrity Apprentice,” he was the uber-successful billionaire and alpha male who lived in a golden tower – an image that is arguably more accessible to the average person than the closeted world of Hamptons cocktail parties that Clinton was portrayed as inhabiting.
Trump exploited the fears, feelings of neglect and fantasies of his voters. He deployed rhetoric that combined a cadence of danger with megadoses of emotional empathy. Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention invoked law and order and was replete with descriptions of violent acts that victimized ordinary Americans – particularly those who live in inner cities. Trump claimed that he was the “only one” who could save ordinary Americans. He would be their “champion.” He would “fight” for them. He would “win” for them.
A different reality in Europe
In contrast to Trump, European populists are committed conservative nationalists. They are responding to a crisis of management on many levels in EU governance – debt, migration, and security. Many are experienced politicians who have held office and have thought out policy positions – no matter how one feels about those positions.
The media often emphasize the anti-immigrant positions of European populists. But these politicians are more than single-issue xenophobes. When European populists say they want to express the will of the people, they have some specific issues in mind. They want to exit the European Union and reestablish national governance. They want to return to the “social Europe” that began to crumble in the 1970s.
An American rootlessness
Trump has tapped into what sociologist Emile Durkheim identified as anomie – a state of profound rootlessness and dislocation that occurs when institutions such as family and work break down. The salesman in Trump seemed to have grasped this instinctively. He was willing to say what perhaps others were thinking and to shatter verbal taboos.
Pundits have also compared Trump to another European figure I’ve studied – Benito Mussolini. Some see similarities in the men’s physical appearance, personal style, and authoritarian ways.
This may be a more apt comparison.
The motto of the Italian fascist party was “Believe, Obey, Fight!” – an injunction to action without a defined object – a command to do anything that the leader requires. In other words, style without content.
“Make America Great Again” is a similar slogan. It opens the door to virtually anything. So far it has encouraged white nationalists to justify public attacks on Americans of color which have risen since the election.
It is a rare event when citizens turn their back on things that even basic civics teaches about good governance – such as the legitimacy of political institutions, the free press, and the electoral system. This, to my mind, is the true American exceptionalism, and it is profoundly dangerous.