The first round of Presidential elections comes at a jittery time for France; an extended campaign of Islamic terrorism has rattled the country, and weak growth and high unemployment has given rise to populist feeling. Voters are deeply fed up with the existing political order, and as they go to the polls this weekend, they seem likely to roundly reject the two major parties which have dominated the Fifth Republic’s presidential system for so long. Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, languishes far behind the leaders, polling in single digits, his party damaged beyond repair by the dreadful standing of Hollande – the President saw a remarkable approval rating of just 4% in late 2016. Meanwhile, Francois Fillon, candidate for the Republicans, has been gravely wounded by a family expenses scandal. He ignored calls to drop out after it was revealed he possibly gave fictitious jobs to family members – Penelope, Fillon’s wife, is accused of having done little to no work while being paid hundreds of thousands in public funds as a ‘’parliamentary assistant.’’ While he bravely limps on with a chance at the second round, the election was supposed to be his to lose.
This deep unhappiness with the established political class has given rise to nasty demagogues. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a charismatic ex-Trotskyite of the hard left, stands a chance at being President after he saw a dramatic upsurge of support in the final weeks of campaigning. He has promised to pull France out of European Union treaties; sympathetic to autocratic, anti-Western leaders like Vladimir Putin and the late Hugo Chavez, Mélenchon would withdraw France from NATO. Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, of the hard-right, xenophobic National Front, campaigns against immigration, globalisation, the EU and ‘’Islamism.’’ She has sought to present her brand of extremist politics with a shiny, professionalised sheen – yet underneath, there is a repulsive core. Her party has an ugly anti-Semitic past; she recently sought to deny Vichy France’s role in the Holocaust, prompting swift condemnation by Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Suspicions have long lingered that Russian banks close to Putin have financed her party’s campaign.
There is a common link between Mélenchon and Le Pen – both would see France withdraw from the international liberal world order which has guaranteed decades of peace and prosperity. If elected, they would herald the beginning of a darker, poorer era for France; isolationist, closed to the world. It would be a sad fate for a country which gave us the Enlightenment.
In the face of such horrible options for President, voters should back Emmanuel Macron. A young, telegenic, outsider, Macron has run a remarkably optimistic campaign considering the mood of the French electorate. Bravely standing up for progressive values and globalisation, he has been drawing massive crowds across France – he leads polling for the first-round vote. He stands for a France open to the world; at a time when many Frenchman are suspicious of the European project, Macron is unabashedly pro-EU. His socially liberal values and business friendly approach have managed to endear him to both sides of the political spectrum; if he faced Le Pen or Mélenchon in the second round, surveys of voters show he would soundly win.
French voters should get behind Macron. It is true that he lacks experience; he has never held elected office before. But only he has the power to stand up for an open, brighter France – a France brave enough not to shut out an increasingly unsure world, but to stand up and shape it. This writer hopes he pulls through this weekend.