The first round of the French Presidential elections took place on Sunday, 10th April, when 12 candidates fought to gain votes to obtain one of the two places for the second round to be held next Sunday (24th April).
The incumbent President Emmanuel Macron arrived first with 27.85% of the votes in front of the right-wing candidate, Marine Le Pen, who obtained a share of 23.15. Just behind her, with 21.95% of the votes, the leader of the left-wing party “La France Insoumise”, Jean-Luc Melenchon, missed the possibility of campaigning again to become President by just less than five-hundred thousand votes.
Therefore, the second stage of this election will see the same candidates as five years ago when the front runner of “La République En Marche”, Macron, clearly defeated Le Pen and its party “Rassemblement National” by more than 30% points.
However, from the opinion polls of these last weeks, it seems like the outcome will be completely different and way more competitive. The general consensus is that the Incumbent President is in front of his challenger by more or less 8%. It means that the result of this election is utterly uncertain, with unexpected shocks in the last few days of the electoral campaign that might completely overturn those predictions.
Source: AFP, Ministère de l’Intérieur
One of the main topics of this election, together with purchasing power of consumers, environment, immigration, and Covid, will be the plan for future European integration.
The current President wishes for a further integrated Union in which France could have a prominent role in determining the main goals to achieve in the future. On the other hand, Marine Le Pen pushes for a loosening of connections created by European Treaties, especially with Germany, which she considers having conflicting national interests with the French ones. As expressed by Macron in a speech after the first round, this election will be a choice between two completely different models of civilization, and European aspirations play a crucial role in them.
Macron, for a renewal of Europe
At the end of 2021, the French President expressed his priorities for the France semester of Presidency of the European Council. His desired long-term goal is to achieve a “powerful Europe active in the world, fully sovereign, free in its choices and master of its own destiny”. The slogan “Recovery, power, and belonging” also expressed this concept. It represents how the European Union should come out from this period in a more stable situation than before the crisis, reinforced in its power to impact more in the international scenario, and with a stronger sense of belonging among its citizens. Therefore, the aim is to increase both the sense of European identity and European sovereignty. In Macron’s view, the latter, together with strategic autonomy, is the only mean for the Union to count in the international scenario due to the increasing relevance of autocratic China and the United States less focused on Europe to be more on the Pacific area. Those concepts refer to several policy areas such as more shared efforts for the environment, a shared defense, more investments and incentives for digitalization, a tightening of the Union’s external borders under the pressure of immigration, and more precise, faster, and transparent ways to act for the Union. In the same speech, he touched on another critical point for the future of Europe: the possibility for the middle-class to benefit from the progress in the integration process. He acknowledged how this promise, made at the beginning of the European path, is now fading due to growing inequalities, de-industrialization, and new challenges such as environment and automation. The goal is to develop a new perspective of growth, able not only to meet the needs of the more educated or wealthy but also of the majority of ordinary citizens; otherwise, the European process will turn out to be a historic failure.
Moreover, in his first speech at the European Parliament during the French Presidency on 19th January 2022, President Macron started highlighting the importance of democracy, the rule of law, and free and fair electoral processes in the institutions that shape the Union and in its Member States. It was a clear stance against the increasing trend of autocracies and illiberal democracies, spreading both inside and outside the European Union. It showed how deeply his vision for the Continent is linked to those core values written inside the Treaties and now at the basis of every integration process.
Le Pen, for an alliance of nations
The political position of Le Pen concerning the EU changed quite significantly from 2012 when she campaigned for the first time in the Presidential Election. After campaigning to exit from both the European Union and the Euro, she took in the last years more moderate positions to avoid scaring too many voters with those radical ideas. However, her harsh criticism of the actual institutional composition of the Union is still present and continues uninterrupted. She proposes reforming the EU and turning it into an alliance of nations in which each country could decide which laws to apply. It would mean taking away power from the Commission and giving it back to national governments while also instituting the primacy of national law over the European one. Moreover, she would also give Member States the power to control those who travel inside the EU, thus eliminating the Schengen Agreement and repealing the fundamental principle of free movement. Therefore, according to her, any European Sovereignty principle should be demolished, and the actual Union should be deprived of the majority of its duties, leaving it without any substantial role in the policy-making scenario.
This whole project is the complete opposite of Macron’s one but has its foundation in the recurrent idea that the current Union is focused only on the interest of bureaucrats and the elites while forgetting common citizens and their concerns.
Another issue on which they have entirely different opinions is concerning Poland and Hungary. As we saw previously, Macron criticized the tendency of those countries to create a framework of “illiberal democracy”. Instead, his challenger openly supported the “act of resistance” of their governments “refusing to submit to Brussels diktats”.
Le Pen’s initial radical positions were the leading causes of the crushing defeat she experienced in 2017. Later on, her new approach was a determining component in her rise in the vote share in the challenge against Macron, but many doubts remain in the electorate regarding what she would do in the European arena after becoming President.
The turning point
The antithetic positions of the two candidates and the pivotal role of France in the European scenario make this election a decisive turning point for the future of the EU. The French voters, together with several domestic issues, are also called to decide which path they want to achieve in the future. On one side, a stronger, more democratic, and sovereign Union. On the other, a reversal of the integration process toward independent and less connected States.
From the polls, it seems like there is still a majority of voters convinced to support the former, thus continuing the process started after the Second World War; however, the margin is extraordinarily narrow, and everything can still happen. Sunday will be, in every case, a milestone for the future of the Union and will likely have a substantial impact on the life of every European citizen in the following decades.