PARIS (AP) — As war blazes east of the European Union, French voters will cast their ballots in a presidential election whose outcome will have international implications. France is the second-largest economy in the 27-member bloc, the only one to have a veto in the UN Security Council and its only nuclear power. And as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues the war in Ukraine, French power will help shape Europe’s response.
Twelve candidates are vying for the presidency, including incumbent and front-runner Emmanuel Macron who is seeking a new term amid a challenge from the far right.
Here’s why the French elections, which take place in two rounds from Sunday, are important:
Political cartoons about world leaders
Russia’s war in Ukraine has given Macron an opportunity to demonstrate his influence on the international stage and restore his pro-NATO image in electoral debates. Macron is the lone frontrunner to back the alliance while other candidates have differing views on France’s role in it, including abandoning it altogether. Such a development would be a serious blow to an alliance built to protect its members in the Cold War then incipient 73 years ago.
Despite NATO’s declaration of “brain death” in 2019, the war in Ukraine prompted Macron to try to infuse the alliance with a renewed sense of purpose.
“Macron really wants to create a European pillar of NATO,” says Susi Dennison, Senior Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “He used it for his shuttle diplomacy on the conflict in Ukraine.”
On the far left, the candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon wants to leave NATO purely and simply, affirming that it only produces quarrels and instability. A NATO-skeptical President Melenchon could be a concern, particularly for Poland, which has a 1,160 kilometer border with territory now controlled by Russia.
Several other candidates want to see either a decrease in engagement with the alliance or a complete withdrawal. Although unlikely, France’s departure from NATO would create a deep chasm with its allies and alienate the United States.
Observers say Macron’s re-election would mean a real likelihood of increased cooperation and investment in European security and defence, especially with a new pro-EU German government.
Under Macron’s leadership, France’s defense spending has increased by 7 billion euros ($7.6 billion) with the goal of raising it to 2% of gross domestic product, which leaders including Putin , watch closely. During his second term, Macron would almost certainly want to build a common European response to Ukraine and fend off Russian threats.
This election could reshape post-war French identity and indicate whether European populism is rising or declining. As populist Viktor Orban won a fourth consecutive term as Hungarian prime minister days ago, eyes have now turned to France’s resurgent far-right candidates, particularly National Rally leader Marine Le Pen who wants to ban the Muslim headscarf in the streets, and halal and kosher butchers, and drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.
“If a far-right candidate wins, it could create a sort of alliance or axis in Europe,” said Dennison, of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Le Pen has been tweeting pictures of herself shaking hands with Orban for the past few days. She stands for a Europe of strong nation states.”
This axis could include Polish President Andrzej Duda, a right-wing populist and ally of Donald Trump. It alarmed observers.
“Over 30% of French voters currently say they will vote for a far-right candidate. If you include Melenchon as another extreme, anti-system candidate, that’s almost half of the total voting population. is unprecedented,” Dennison said.
Far-right candidate Eric Zemmour has dominated French airwaves with his controversial views on Islam in France and immigration.
However, even the centrist Macron ruffled Muslim countries two years ago when he defended the right to publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. It came during a tribute to a teacher who was beheaded by a fundamentalist for showing the cartoons to his students as part of a free speech lesson.
The United States often touts France as its oldest ally — and from Russian sanctions to climate change and the United Nations, Washington needs a reliable partner in Paris. France is a vital transatlantic friend for America, especially for its status as the only permanent member of the UN Security Council in continental Europe with the right of veto.
Despite bitter discussions between the US and France last year over a multi-billion dollar deal to supply Australia with submarines – which saw France humiliated – President Joe Biden and Macron are now on good terms.
“Macron is obviously the only candidate who has a history and credentials in dealings with the United States. All the others would be starting from scratch at a time of great geopolitical uncertainty,” Dennison said.
Unlike Macron, an Élysée in the hands of Zemmour or Le Pen would likely mean less concern for issues that the US sees as a priority like climate change. “They might not prioritize the high economic cost of maintaining the Paris Climate Accord and the potential to limit global warming to 1.5%,” Dennison added.
MIGRATION ON THE CONTINENT
In light of a huge influx of migrants into Europe last year, France’s stance on migration will continue to have a significant impact on countries on its periphery and beyond. This is particularly true due to its geographical location as a stopover point for many migrants traveling to the UK.
A migrant ship capsized in the English Channel last November killing 27 people, sparking a row between France and the UK over British responsibility. Observers consider France not particularly open to migrants in a European context and see Macron as relatively tough on migration.
But Le Pen or Zemmour would likely usher in tougher policies than Macron if they emerge victorious, such as cutting social benefits for non-French citizens and capping the number of asylum seekers. Some candidates have backed Trump-style construction of border fences.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the French elections at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022
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