Worlds Collide in the French Election

Photo: AP/Sipa France

French voters have a choice of two worlds May 7 between the internationalist, centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron and the isolationist, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen. The election could signal drastic changes to French defense and foreign policy or it could mean more of the same.

Le Pen and Macron agree on a few points when it comes to defense but the policies they would implement differ. Take fighting Islamic extremism, for example. Both candidates have made this a top talking point in their campaigns, especially after April’s deadly attack on a police bus in central Paris.

In a televised debate Wednesday evening, Macron said, “Fighting terrorism will be my priority,” while he vowed to strengthen law enforcement measures against suspected terrorists. He also plans to set up a counterterrorism task force, his military adviser Jean-Paul Palomeros said on Thursday. A major part of creating that task force will be closer intelligence cooperation with the United States. 

“You are complaisant toward Islamist fundamentalism,” Le Pen retorted. “We’ve got to eradicate fundamentalist ideologies. You won’t do it, because they support you.”

Le Pen has made restricting immigration to France a huge pillar of her campaign. She would accomplish this partially through pulling France out of the European Union and Schengen area of free movement, and by boosting national defenses.

Le Pen wants to increase France’s defense budget to 2 percent of GDP by next year, up from 1.78 percent in 2016, and has talked about reaching 3 percent by the end of her prospective term.

Macron also wants to raise France’s defense spending, but he’s taking a more measured approach, saying France will reach the 2 percent mark by 2025, although by some estimates his current plan could put France on the path to 2 percent by 2022.

“The budget increase would cover the necessary modernization of the modules of French nuclear deterrence – sea and air – which Macron has pledged to keep,” Martin Michelot told The Cipher Brief.

On the other hand, said Michelot, who is Deputy Director of the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund, Macron’s proposed budget “means that a second aircraft carrier, which opposing candidate Marine Le Pen and some others call for, would likely not to be commissioned during the Macron presidency.”

French involvement in NATO operations would likely remain the same under Macron. Although he supports the institution and maintains that the U.S. and EU members are France’s strongest allies, he, like Le Pen, has a vision of NATO as only one tool in the toolbox of French security – which makes sense, given that France has long been the preeminent defensive power in Europe and is the only European nation besides the UK with nuclear capabilities.

Le Pen takes this vision to a radical end. She has said she intends to not only withdraw France from the EU if she wins the presidency, but also NATO.

“Withdrawing from NATO is a strange idea,” Brookings Visiting Fellow Philippe Le Corre told The Cipher Brief. It would “have serious consequences on the transatlantic relationship,” he said.

Le Corre, who previously served in France’s Ministry of Defense as Special Assistant to the Minister, added, “leaving NATO would mean severing relations with the U.S. in military terms.”

It remains unclear exactly what Le Pen is thinking when she says she wants France to leave NATO. Would she try to totally isolate France from the world, while building France’s national defenses in case of threats to its territory? Would she reestablish defense ties with the U.S. and European countries bilaterally? Or would she turn to other countries – such as Russia – to help maintain French security?

Le Pen’s somewhat sketchy ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin are well known. She visited him at the Kremlin in March and her National Front party has allegedly received funding from Moscow. During Wednesday’s debate, she said, “In a world that is changing, which is making choices that are the opposite of yours … I am the best placed with the India of Modi, the United States of Trump, the Russia of Putin.”

U.S. President Donald Trump made similarly warm overtures toward Putin during his campaign last year but has seemed to quickly realize the danger of cozying up to the Russian leader.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted at a talk with State Department staff on Wednesday that U.S. relations with Russia are at the lowest point since the Cold War.

“Can you imagine France and Russia becoming allies? It’s just impossible to think about,” Le Corre commented, calling potential France-Russia defense cooperation “extreme,” but adding, “I don’t know though. She [Le Pen] has been very vague.”

Macron, for one, says he will “in no case be subjected to the order of Mr. Putin, and that’s the main difference between me and Marine Le Pen.”

“His position on Russia is in line with the Quai d’Orsay’s,” said Michelot, which means “dialogue with Russia to the extent necessary for deescalating the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, implementation of the Minsk agreements to deal with the conflict in Ukraine, and condemnation of the illegal annexation of Crimea.”

For both candidates, though, any follow-through on their proposed defense platforms will be tricky, because as president, either will need the backing of Parliament.

Macron’s platform appears to be more achievable, given that it’s largely in line with current defense policies. Indeed, current Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has publicly supported Macron and his defense platform. So, even if Macron does not win a majority in June’s parliamentary elections, if Parliament’s composition remains largely unaltered, Macron’s defense plans will likely be implemented.

Le Pen, on the other hand, is not expected to be able to win a parliamentary majority, and in order to make such massive overhauls as abandoning NATO, “She would have to go through Parliament at some stage,” said Le Corre.

“But we’re not there yet,” Le Corre noted. “She’s not elected.”

Former U.S. President Barack Obama recently endorsed Macron, saying that Macron “has stood up for liberal values … He is committed to a better future for the French people. He appeals to people’s hopes and not their fears.”

The latest polls all put Macron ahead of Le Pen, by around 20 points.  

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