Why the French elections are so important in the United States
The United States holds a key stake in Sunday’s French presidential election, when voters in one of America’s oldest allies will choose between incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen.
The vote is seen as a referendum on the close ties Macron has established between France and the rest of Western Europe and the United States and Le Pen’s populist push for a more independent France.
Le Pen is seen as close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and has signaled that there would be a change in France’s policy on Russia’s war in Ukraine if elected.
The US establishment is clearly hoping for a Macron victory, although the Biden administration has publicly said it is watching the election closely and stressed that the contest is a decision for the French people.
“I’m just not going to preempt an election in a foreign country,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this month. “Obviously we’ll be watching this closely, and I’m sure we’ll have more to discuss once the results are in.”
Analysts say Marcon is likely to win another five-year term, but Le Pen’s third bid for the French presidency has surprised observers with its strength.
Le Pen took on Macron in 2017, and his campaign strategy at the time aligned and capitalized on former President Trump’s shock victory in 2016. Trump withheld an official endorsement at the time, but expressed support for his positions.
His return in the second round in 2022 indicates populist support for far-right positions among part of the French population – and dissatisfaction with Macron.
A victory for Le Pen would be widely seen as a victory for Russia and a defeat for the United States and NATO.
“Yes [Le Pen] won, it would be the first major victory that Vladimir Putin has won since his forces were checked on the outskirts of kyiv,” said Ben Judah, senior researcher at the Atlantic Council.
“This is a very important election for the United States,” he added, saying a victory for Le Pen would replace Macron’s proven and respected leadership on the European and global stage “for a leader who would be one of the least experienced, least respected and least respected”. the least reliable.
A victory for Le Pen would also signal rejection of a closer and more integrated European Union (EU), which has played a key role in passing measures to sanction Russia at the same pace as the United States, the UK and other countries rallied to the cause. such as Japan and Australia.
“All the dynamics that we have seen over the past decades of the EU consolidating and becoming more of a sort of single player, more of a big player on the international stage, which will go backwards, from a process of integration to a process of disintegration in Europe,” Judah said.
While recent polls put Macron ahead of Le Pen by up to 10 percentage points ahead of Sunday’s runoff election, his gains reflect what experts say is the politician’s strategy of seeking to appeal to the mainstream. — moderating some of her more extreme views and promoting herself as a single working mother concerned about sky-high inflation.
“Marine Le Pen has tried to go further and direct her message to blue-collar French voters, and she tries to appeal to voters who may feel abandoned by the left,” said Laure Pallez, a former adviser to the French government which is active among the French diaspora in the USA
“His good performance in the elections shows that there is some public support for his positions. We cannot ignore that,” Pallez added.
The main problem for French voters is the so-called purchasing power, the rising cost of everyday consumer goods, gas and energy. And while the French largely hold Russia responsible for starting a war in Ukraine, their own wallets have been pinched by Western sanctions against Moscow.
Le Pen seized on these concerns as part of his campaign while downplaying his historic stance as the “largely pro-Russian, pro-Putin and anti-American candidate,” Célia Belin, a visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe. at Brookings, said during a panel discussion.
“She focused on purchasing power, socio-economic issues,” Belin said, and that focus made people “forget about her kind of pro-Putin outlook.”
While Le Pen has condemned Putin for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she nevertheless pleads for a France more independent of Europe, the United States and NATO – while the United States and its allies have emphasized close coordination between these nations as an essential bulwark to isolate Moscow and render Putin an outcast.
“Le Pen is no longer directly proposing to leave the EU or abandon the euro,” said Pallez, who has always identified her as a “eurosceptic”.
Le Pen wants to reduce France’s contributions to the EU, leave NATO’s supreme decision-making council, strengthen monitoring of imports into the country and promote bilateral European relations, in particular with Hungary and Poland, two countries criticized for their rollback of democratic freedoms.
“Its political identity is more ‘the Europe of strong and nations,” Pallez said, referring to Le Pen’s view that national laws hold more power than consensual measures reached by the Council of the European Union.
It is an idea that corresponds to the policies advocated by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán or Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Pallez added.
As Le Pen has grown in popularity, his strong performance is also a reflection of domestic anger at Macron, who has been criticized for prioritizing the war in Ukraine over French concerns.
Macron announced his candidacy for the presidency the day before the official campaign deadline and with a “letter to the French”. This created a public perception that Macron viewed a presidential victory as guaranteed and the election as “red tape”, Belin said.
“That kind of high political commitment prevented him from really appearing as a national leader, caring about the French people and their problems, and at some point he started to create resentment,” she said. added.
Pallez said Macron’s sense of indifference further reinforced a sense of disconnect between the general public and political elites.
“Like in the United States, what people care about most and what politicians talk about don’t necessarily match up,” she said. “It creates distrust of the elite and very fertile ground for populist movements.”