Amid tightened security following last Thursday’s deadly terrorist attack in Paris, French voters turned out in high numbers to the polls on Sunday for the first round of the country’s presidential election. Globalist Emmanuel Macron and populist Marine Le Pen, the two top finishers amongst the eleven candidates running to replace the Socialist French President Francois Hollande, will face each other in a run-off on Sunday, May 7th. Mr. Macron came out on top, with slightly over 23 percent of vote, and is the favorite to win the presidency outright in the May 7th run-off. Ms. Le Pen ran a close second. Neither of the top two finishers were candidates of France’s major mainstream left and right parties. The incumbent president is very unpopular, which no doubt burdened the Socialist candidate. The major right-of-center candidate has been mired in a scandal.
Not surprisingly, the lackluster economy, including 10 percent unemployment, and security concerns emanating from repeated terrorist attacks emerged as the leading issues in the race.
French voters will be choosing as their next president between two individuals with starkly different world views. As of now, according to Politico, Emmanuel Macron is ahead of Marine Le Pen by 20 to 30 percent in a one-on-one match-up. Moreover, in an initial positive response from investors to Mr. Macron’s first-place finish and prospects in the run-off, the Euro rose to a 5½-month high against the dollar. Nevertheless, given Ms. Le Pen’s close finish in the first round and her enthusiastic constituency, it is premature to count her out. After all, the pundits and pollsters were virtually unanimous in picking Hillary Clinton to win last fall over Donald Trump. We know how that turned out.
Emmanuel Macron, 39, who founded his own independent party just a year ago, is a pro-European Union centrist. He believes in gradual deregulation and fiscal discipline, while at the same time espousing even closer cooperation among the EU’s 28 member states. Several EU leaders expressed delight with Mr. Macron’s strong finish and prospects in the run-off. For example, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said, “He is the only pro-EU candidate.” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said he was “happy that Macron will represent in the second round democratic and European values that I share.”
Mr. Macron, speaking after the election results came in, congratulated the other candidates he ran against, except Ms. Le Pen. In a barb at his opponent in the May 7th run-off, he said he would lead “the patriots facing the nationalists.”
Marine Le Pen, 48, is the leader of the nationalist Front National party. She ran on a platform combining anti-globalist sentiments with economic populism.
In a recent debate, Ms. Le Pen summed up how she viewed her candidacy: "I'm a French woman, a mother and a candidate for the presidency. For me this election is about a choice of civilizations. Our country is overrun by insecurity, economic and social disorder and Islamist terrorism. Our values and identity are under threat."
While not endorsing Ms. Le Pen outright, President Trump remarked that she was “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.”
Shortly after the election results became known, Ms. Le Pen reprised her anti-globalist, populist themes. She framed the “great issue in this election” as “the rampant globalization that is putting our civilization at risk." At a rally in northern France, she declared, “The choice now is between a wild globalization, a world in which terrorists can travel free, and a France with strong borders. It is time to free the French people from the arrogant elite. I am the candidate of the people.”
Looking ahead to the run-off, Ms. Le Pen is likely to paint Mr. Macron, a former banker who served in President Hollande’s cabinet, as part of the “arrogant elite.” She also claimed the mantle of the patriot for herself, fighting against "wild deregulation," open borders, and "the free circulation of terrorists."
Marine Le Pen’s qualification for the run-off indicates the continuing strength of the anti-globalist, populist movement sweeping the West, which first showed up in the United Kingdom’s pro-Brexit vote and then in the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election last fall. In 2011, Ms. Le Pen took over the Front National party founded by her racist, Holocaust-denying father and has since transformed it into a France-first, populist movement that caught on with voters disaffected with the major traditional parties. To shed the Front National’s extremist, anti-Semitic image, she cast her father aside after his continued offensive outbursts.
However, Ms. Le Pen retains some traces of her father’s stereotyping of Jews. She claims to believe that radical Islam is a “threat on French culture,” but then demands that Jews make certain “sacrifices” in their own public expression of religious beliefs so that limitations imposed on Muslims living in France, as part of the fight against jihad, will not be seen as discriminatory. For example, she believes that Jews should give up wearing a kippah in public. “Maybe they will do with just wearing a hat, but it would be a step in the effort to stamp out radical Islam in France,” she said.
When was the last time a kippah concealed a bomb or a gun? Yet, Ms. Le Pen effectively equates observant Jews and radical Islamists as dangers to France’s secular identity because both minority populations are overtly religious.
Ms. Le Pen has also downplayed the role of France's Vichy government in the roundup and deportation of Jews to concentration camps during the Nazi occupation.
Thus, it is no surprise that between the two run-off candidates, French Jews are favoring Mr. Macron. However, to be fair, Mr. Macron is not without his own biases and expression of moral equivalency. Last fall, he remarked about the tendency of “more and more children being sent to religious schools which teach them to hate the Republic and teach mainly in Arabic, or in other places” where they “teach the Torah more than general studies.”
The pro-globalism establishment is rooting for a Macron victory, which would be seen as a major rebuff of the populist, anti-immigrant movement in Europe. The populist movement has already suffered recent defeats in Austria and the Netherlands. Mr. Macron’s election in France would represent a far more significant defeat for the populists. However, Germany’s federal election will be held in September. Whatever happens in France next month, the electoral results in Germany are more likely to determine whether the EU can survive the populist reaction to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reckless open door policy, admitting hundreds of thousands of self-proclaimed “refugees” and migrants from terrorist prone countries. As long as the wave of “refugees” and migrants continues to sweep over Europe, it will be impossible to put out the populist fires she helped to ignite in the first place.