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France’s Presidential Election: A Referendum on Foreign Policy

France’s Presidential Election: A Referendum on Foreign Policy
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Foreign policy usually doesn’t play a vital role in France’s political campaigns and presidential elections. Rather, it is domestic policies that occupy voters’ minds. Despite this, the ability of presidential candidates to represent France in the world and embody the stature and standing of the country on an international stage is something that matters to voters. One would think that this is especially the case this year. First, because the Covid-19 crisis has illuminated the interconnection between individuals’ daily lives and the global world. Second, because the war in Ukraine also finds itself at the doorstep of France. These two elements have influenced the outcome of the upcoming presidential election in ways no one could have anticipated. 

Foreign policy has not necessarily been a central element in the electoral debate - which remains focused on domestic issues such as purchasing power, immigration and security - but one can distinctly see the impact of the Ukrainian war on candidates’ popularity in the polls. Notably, Eric Zemmour’s response to the Russian attack has seriously disrupted his image and popularity. It is not necessarily the content of his declarations that was negatively received, but the impression he gave of being too quick and too radical in his pronouncements, and, ultimately, too far from reality. Even among his voter base, questions have been raised about whether he is truly fit for a job that requires negotiating with Russia, the US and other great powers. Conversely, Marine Le Pen, who’s prior stance was arguably as pro-Russia as Zemmour, has been able to review her position towards the crisis, hereby reinforcing her image as a candidate. The right-wing candidate Valerie Pecresse, on the other hand, has neither found the right tone nor words to embarrass Emmanuel Macron and enhance her image as a potential leader.

Given the context of both the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine, there is evidently a correlation between candidate popularity, and France’s willingness to stay in the European Union. 

With regards to France’s role in Europe, Macron is in a position to show a good overall track record: the fact that the EU was able to succeed in vaccination programs, as well as the recovery fund, means that the image of European institutions has significantly improved in the eyes of the public. It is therefore more difficult now than it was in 2017 for candidates to run with an anti-Europe agenda. Marine Le Pen has once again understood this, leading her to modify her previous position against Europe; now, she doesn’t want to leave the EU zone, nor the EU itself. Given the context of both the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine, there is evidently a correlation between candidate popularity, and France’s willingness to stay in the European Union. 

When it comes to international affairs, one can argue that President Macron has been a lucky man. As we have already mentioned, the Covid-19 crisis came at the right moment to validate Macron’s plea for a more integrated EU. Simultaneously, the war in Ukraine enabled him to validate his passionate stance in favor of European defense. In a different way, Macron has been lucky with regards to the current focus on the Ukrainian war, which means that people are paying little attention to his foreign policy failures, such as the setback France is facing in Mali. In normal times, a great deal of the French public’s attention would have concentrated on the disintegration of Franco-Malian relations and the hasty withdrawal of the French military.

In summing up these various elements, we may come to the following conclusion. Even though foreign policy issues remain less visible in the campaign than domestic issues, this election is in fact a referendum on foreign affairs. First, it is a referendum on Europe, with regards to which Macron is clearly on the safe side. Second, it is a referendum on Russia, a topic which traditionally attracts a lot of attention in France. In France, there is a tradition of sympathizing with Russia - the product of long-standing diplomatic and cultural relations - even though recent polls show that pro-Russian sentiment is more pronounced in the so-called political class, rather than among everyday citizens.

Even though foreign policy issues remain less visible in the campaign than domestic issues, this election is in fact a referendum on foreign affairs.

Third, through this focus on Russia, the current election can be seen as a referendum on France’s transatlantic alliances. If you consider that many French voters view Germany, Italy, and Spain as the most reliable bilateral relations, you may come to the conclusion that a strong European defense is wished for by a big majority of the voters. If this is the case, what will the place of NATO be in France’s future, and how can we figure out the relations between France’s place inside Europe, inside NATO, as well as our role in the wider world? What about France’s relationship with the US and China? These are the real stakes for France’s future.

It is clear that France’s new leader will face many uncertainties. A key issue remains the economic gap between France and Germany, to the extent that the EU appears to many French citizens as the main vehicle for meeting the upcoming challenges. Furthermore, it is vital for Paris to maintain a leadership role in Brussels. A more recent source of concern for the French leadership is related to the country’s capacity to maintain soft power. Until now, France’s soft power has been disproportionate to its genuine economic and demographic power. This question raises the underlying issue of the de-Westernisation of the global order. As we are witnessing with the war in Ukraine, a great number of nations now have a transactional attitude towards the West, and are no longer impressed by an alleged moral or intellectual superiority underpinning the liberal world order. 

Other major topics for the future of France will involve its capacity to contribute to the management of global issues, mainly climate change, development, and the regulation of technology and information. On the other end of the power spectrum is France’s ability to maintain a military presence abroad, including in the Indo-Pacific, and to enhance its contribution to European security. For all these reasons, it would be wise for the next president to launch the equivalent of the British Integrated Review. That is to say, to reexamine the role of the various challenges as well as opportunities - economic, political, diplomatic, security - confronting France’s position in the world, and to make sure that the instruments at France’s disposal are able to match the growing complexity of the global order. What is most needed for the future of French Foreign Policy is, therefore, a grand strategy.

Copyright: Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

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