With the shock calling this week of a snap General Election here in the UK, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that there is another election going on across the Channel. Less than a year after the twin shocks of the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory in the US, the 2017 French presidential election is shaping up to provide us with yet another sizeable dose of electoral volatility.
With mere days to go before the first round of voting on 23 April the race is too close to call, with four candidates all in the picture for the second round. While veteran Front National leader Marine Le Pen and maverick independent centrist Emmanuel Macron currently lead the pack with around 22-23% of the vote each, former favourite François Fillon of Les Républicains trails by only three or four points. Meanwhile a dramatic surge in the past few weeks from the hard-left socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon sees him neck-and-neck with Fillon, and within touching distance of the second round.
With tight polls, unprecedented numbers of undecided voters and a now familiar vein of anti-establishment populist sentiment running through French politics, the election has the potential to throw up a number of very different outcomes.
Amidst this unpredictability, the race for the Élysée will have implications that will be felt beyond France’s borders, not least across the Channel, where France’s choice for President will have a significant impact on the process of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
As in British politics, the issue of Brexit has loomed large in this election campaign. The incumbent President François Hollande has spoken of a desire to make Britain pay for its decision to leave the European Union, declaring that non-members should not be offered the same benefits available to member states.
It is a viewpoint that is shared by Macron, by far the most avowedly pro-EU candidate in this election. On a recent visit to London, where he met with Theresa May, Macron reaffirmed his belief that access to the single market depended on the acceptance of the EU’s “four freedoms” – including free movement of labour – and spoke of his intention to poach “banks, talents, researchers, academics” from the UK after Brexit, much to the chagrin of Mrs May.
There is a distinct chance therefore that this election could see the emergence of an emboldened, revanchist France, with little intention of giving Britain an easy time in its Brexit negotiations.
On the other hand, Euroscepticism has also found expression in French politics: two of the four leading candidates – Le Pen and Mélenchon – have pledged to hold a referendum on France’s membership of the EU. Le Pen for her part has declared that she would be Britain’s “ally” against Europe, and a victory for her or for Mélenchon would very likely break the EU’s united front and provoke a new crisis across the Eurozone.
The threat of one of the EU’s largest and most important members following Britain through the exit door and abandoning the Euro would have serious implications for the UK’s withdrawal negotiations. It is often said that Britain will suffer from a “bandwidth” problem during the Brexit negotiations, with a serious lack of civil service negotiation capacity in comparison to the rest of the European Union. If however the EU finds itself fighting a war on two fronts, with France threatening a hugely destabilising exit of its own, the balance could well swing in Britain’s favour.
Even if the Eurosceptics fall short of victory in France, this election has vividly demonstrated the volatility of French politics, with increasing fragmentation and the rise of populism and extremism across the political spectrum. British businesses who were eyeing up moves to the continent following the Brexit vote may well be having second thoughts about doing so, and may well prefer the relative stability of British politics even in spite of the UK’s impending exit from the European Union.
With Britain’s future relationship with Europe yet to be decided, the presidential election in France will have a significant impact on British politics regardless of who emerges as the winner. From this side of the Channel politicians and businesses alike will be keeping a very close eye on the first round of voting on Sunday, and the final run-off on May 7.