The recent rise of nativist nationalism around the world led to consequential results in 2016: from the surprise victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election to Brexit in the United Kingdom. This wave of nationalist sentiment is spreading rapidly and playing a big role in the French presidential candidates’ rhetoric.
In a little less than two months, France will hold the first round of voting in its presidential election. If there’s no clear majority winner, a second round with the top two contenders will be held in May. Recent polling shows three candidates at the top of the list: Marine Le Pen—the far right candidate of the Front National (National Front); François Fillon—the center right candidate of Les Républicains (The Republicans); and Emmanuel Macron—a center left candidate running as an independent. With unemployment above 10 percent, a stagnant economy, and an increase in terrorist activity, France is in dire need of a president who will be able to fix these problems. But with Le Pen and Fillon championing protectionist, anti-European Union, anti-refugee policies and Macron championing the opposite, the future of France is unclear for now and with that, its foreign policy.
Marine Le Pen’s rhetoric is often compared to Donald Trump’s—especially when it comes to immigration and open borders. She’s intolerant of illegal immigration and wants the European Union’s Schengen Area to be eliminated so that border checks are reinstated. She wants to cut the number of migrants allowed in the country from its current 200,000 to 10,000 and is in favor of tougher requirements for those seeking French citizenship—from being able to speak French fluently to eliminating the ability to hold dual nationality, especially for non-Europeans. Similarly to Trump, she wants more cooperation with Russia and to restore relations with Syria. She believes more involvement with Russia will lead to the defeat of ISIS. Not only does Le Pen want to get rid of the Schengen Area, but she wants to hold a referendum to leave the European Union and abolish the euro. She thinks globalization has hurt France’s working class, and thus, wants to provide public services to help them, but not to foreigners. In sum, Le Pen wants the equivalent of Trump’s “America First” strategy—a “France First” strategy in which France retreats from the world and “protects” its French citizens from outside threats, like undocumented immigrants, terrorist groups, and yes, even globalization. If she wins, France’s foreign policy will be one based on an isolated France with cozy relations with Russia and frigid ones with allies like Germany. France’s relations with the United States might become bleaker since Le Pen has cited dislike for America. However, since both countries seem to be siding with Russia, then tensions might not be as constrained. As the current favorite with recent polling, showing her in the lead with 26 percent, Le Pen is one to keep an eye on.
François Fillon—once thought to be the one to beat after his surprise victory during the primaries—is now trailing Macron in third place. His favorability ratings dropped after a financial scandal—known as “Penelopegate”—recently broke. People from his own party asked him to consider dropping out of the race, but he refused. Fillon’s stance on foreign policy is similar to that of Le Pen’s. He is very Russia friendly, and in fact, once played billiards with Putin. He would immediately lift sanctions against Russia and would ask Russia to be part of a larger coalition to defeat ISIS. Like Le Pen, he would reduce and restrict immigration. His views on the United States aren’t so favorable, as he believes it is to blame for Europe’s problems. If elected, his foreign policy would likely focus on taking a “France First” position. Fillon would likely find a balance to be friendly with both Russia and the United States.
Emmanuel Macron, the young, English-speaking independent who recently reached stardom, is currently in second place. His political inexperience might be a flag for concern for some, but nowadays, having extensive experience is deemed unnecessary. Unlike the other top two candidates, Macron is pro-immigration, pro-European Union, pro-euro, and anti-Russia. He is a liberal who believes that cooperation and deep dialogue are necessary. He would support further European integration. Moreover, Macron believes in the potential of the euro and wants it to grow through a pro-investment strategy. As for Russia, he wants to expand sanctions, especially if there’s no progress on the Minsk peace accords with the Ukraine. He sees immigration as an “economic opportunity” not just for France but also for Europe as a whole—a very different perspective than that of Le Pen and Fillon. If Macron were to win, his foreign policy would consist of a France willing to cooperate and work closely with the international community.
Will the French elect someone like Donald Trump, who will prefer to retreat from the world, and take a “France First” stance? Or will they instead vote for someone like Canada’s Justin Trudeau who believes in a liberal approach to foreign policy—that is, an approach that involves cooperation among states. If the former happens, it could mean the end of the European political order: from the crumbling of the euro—which would hurt global markets—to the demise of the European Union. This means France would lose all the rights and privileges of setting a political and economic agenda that favor its interests. To protect these and remain a powerhouse in Europe and beyond, it should opt for the candidate with the more liberal agenda. Electing the wrong candidate could bring the downfall of France and the European Union.