Instability Casts a Shadow Over French Presidential Election

Photo: AP/Patrick Kovarick

France’s upcoming presidential election is perhaps the most important in the nearly 60-year history of the Fifth Republic. The election’s first round on Sunday comes at a time of an increasingly divided France, stemming from years of corrupt politicians, economic malaise, high unemployment, and terror. France has been in a state of emergency since January 2015, after the first of several Islamist terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of people, and just this week, a policeman was killed and three others wounded in a shooting on the Champs-Élysées in central Paris. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

The French election also coincides with an increasingly fractious European Union (EU) preparing for Britain’s withdrawal, and a new U.S. administration that seems to prefer working bilaterally, rather than multilaterally, and has consistently espoused a somewhat isolationist policy.

The president of France holds substantial power, responsible for foreign policy and defense, and able to make diplomatic and military decisions without parliamentary approval. This matters, because France is one of Europe’s most adept defense and security actors. Charles Kupchan, who was the special assistant to the president and senior director for European Affairs on the National Security Council (NSC) in the Obama Administration, told The Cipher Brief France and the U.S. cooperate closely on counterterrorism and have been working closely together in Africa.

France has consistently sided with Washington on economic sanctions against Russia due to the latter’s annexation of Crimea and incursions in Ukraine and on finding a solution in Syria that does not include the current Assad regime.

Moreover, France is one of only two nuclear powers in Europe – the other being Britain.

The new French president’s views on foreign and defense policy are not only vital to France’s national security, but also to the security of the EU and the United States.

Right now, it looks like it’s going to be a four-person race (out of 11 candidates) for president, analysts told The Cipher Brief, with no single candidate receiving more than half of the votes, meaning a second round will be held on May 7 between the top two candidates. The leading contenders are far-right National Front leader, Marine Le Pen; far-left Unsubmissive France leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon; centrist En Marche! head, Emmanuel Macron; and conservative The Republicans leader, Francois Fillon.

Le Pen has campaigned on a nationalist, anti-immigration agenda, calling for France’s exit from the EU with a “Frexit” referendum, even though some recent polls show a majority of French citizens prefer to remain in the EU. “The French believe they are stronger as part of a common European project. … With so many crises going on, and major elections taking place in 2017, France cannot walk away from its European role,” Philippe Le Corre, a visiting fellow from France at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, wrote in a recent paper on France and its role in the world.

Mélenchon may also support cutting ties with Europe, but his position has been less clear. “I have no idea really [about Mélenchon]. Mélenchon may have no interest in talking to the United States,” Le Corre told The Cipher Brief.

“Mélenchon’s goal is to eliminate the Fifth Republic and create a Sixth Republic that is less centralized,” said Steven Kramer, a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center. But how he would go about doing that is up in the air. Kramer, who served as Policy Advisor to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs from 1996 to 2002, told The Cipher Brief, “He would have no parliamentary majority,” meaning passing legislation to reform the Republic would be a massive challenge.

Fillon, as the only traditional candidate left with a chance of winning, would likely take a more traditional approach to governing, and to foreign and defense policy. “It’ll be the traditional kind of Gaullist policy, slightly more independent from the United States,” Le Corre said, noting that there may be minor changes, especially toward Russia. Fillon has said EU sanctions on Russia are pointless and claimed there has been no Russian interference in the French election.

Frederic Bozo, a professor of French History at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris and a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, said at a recent Wilson Center event that Fillon wants to support the EU but will focus on sovereign issues and stabilizing the country.

Finally, there’s Macron, who many analysts think will make it to the second round of the election to face off against Le Pen, where he would likely come out on top. Macron, who left the current Hollande government to form En Marche!, would likely “continue the current relationship” with the United States, said Le Corre. “His foreign policy will be pretty much the same as today.”

It’s also thought he would work to strengthen Franco-German cooperation in a time of a fragile European Union. He’s the candidate “that Germany loves,” commented Le Corre, and also the one “that the markets love, that bureaucrats love … that Washington loves.”

The potential problem with a Macron presidency is that he will have a difficult time procuring a parliamentary majority in the National Assembly. “There might be this situation where you have a center-right parliament with an independent, centrist president [Macron], and it would create an interesting set of coalition building and negotiations and probably some instability,” Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Jeff Lightfoot commented.

The same is true of Le Pen and Mélenchon, who are from non-traditional political parties. They most likely would fail to get a majority in the National Assembly and, therefore, have to try to govern with a parliament and prime minister who oppose many of their positions.

In the past when this “co-habitation” has occurred, it failed miserably, analysts told The Cipher Brief. The parliamentary race in June is the “big question mark,” said Le Corre.

“The French body politic of voters are clearly disgusted with the establishment and the old guard. … There’s a throw the bums out mentality,” Lightfoot told The Cipher Brief.

Whether this mentality translates into electing a non-traditional or extremist president could greatly impact U.S. and EU relations with France.

“There’s this idea that Marine Le Pen, because she’s a populist, will get on with Trump,” said Le Corre, adding “but I’m not sure of that.” He said, there are only two candidates who are “acceptable” to the U.S. – Macron and Fillon – and two who would be very “unpredictable” – Le Pen and Mélenchon. 

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.