As French presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen faced off in the final televised debate before the second round of voting on Wednesday night, the fault lines couldn’t have been clearer.
‘Mr. Macron is the candidate of savage globalisation,’ Le Pen growled in her opening statement.
That Le Pen, candidate of the far-right National Front, chose to attack Macron’s globalism before the two had even begun debating is not altogether surprising, but does all the same speak volumes about the importance of the issue to France’s elections. Le Pen’s keystone policies include a French exit from the European Union, a return to the franc (the former national currency) and a complete stop to immigration.
Centrist party (En Marche!) candidate Macron on the other hand has campaigned strongly on the importance of the European Union, deliberately framing himself as the most pro-EU candidate. During the debate, he affirmed that he is “the candidate of a strong France in a Europe which defends us.”
The contrast between the two candidates then is stark, but neither come from the traditional centre-left or centre-right parties. Their biggest difference, however, is that one is fiercely nationalist and the other equally globalist.
‘Un choc, deux France’—‘One shock, two Frances’, read the front page of popular French political magazine l’Obs last week. And graphics showing how France voted in the first round of the election show the same story. Much has been written about the US presidential election, but it is worth noting the similarities between the battle between the globalist Clinton and protectionist Trump (and the following split between the country that ensued).
In this next stage of the globalist – nationalist battle, Macron the globalist is predicted to easily win, but his election will not stop the current political tides. In order to succeed, Macron must win over those who have been seriously hurt by globalisation—those who have lost their jobs due to factories moving offshore for example — and this is no easy task. Indeed, the failure of outgoing president François Hollande to make any meaningful dent on France’s notorious unemployment figures was the reason he became the first president in the history of the Fifth Republic to not seek re-election.
Much was made of the result of the Netherlands’ elections earlier this year, when centrist prime minister Mark Rutte retained the balance of power and far-right Geert Wilders did little to improve his place in the Dutch parliament. With this result, it was tempting to think that perhaps the global populist surge was over. Sadly, this was a pipe dream.
Nationalist populism can be seen as a product of the understandable discontent of voters who have lost their livelihoods due to a number of reasons, but Macron’s kind of globalisation is at the top of most lists. And while Le Pen’s brand of protectionism might not be the fix she claims it to be, voters are hungry for change. Macron, a former minister of the current government and a fierce advocate for the established liberal order, would be well placed to remember this.
Joe Bourke is a student of Journalism and International Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. He is currently in Lyon, France as part of his studies.