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French presidential race: 'Who will beat Marine Le Pen?'

Tomorrow’s winner will be the key challenger for the French Presidency against Marine Le Pen of the Front National, writes Senator Neale Richmond.

Image: Shutterstock/Petr Kovalenkov

THIS SUNDAY, FRANCE’S centre right Les Républicains will select their candidate for next year’s French presidential election.

Following last week’s first round voting, the two contenders remaining are two former Prime Ministers: François Fillon and Alain Juppé. In the first round of voting for the nomination on Sunday, Fillon took a clear lead with 44.1% while current Bordeaux Mayor Juppé received 28.5%. Five other contestants were knocked out.

Among the five contestants knocked out, the big news was the defeat of former President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who came third behind Fillon and Juppé. But the real reason that this second round is so important is that the victor will most likely become the key challenger for the French Presidency against Marine Le Pen of the Front National.

Terror attacks and social deprivation have created a volatile mood

The current political mood in France is as volatile if not more so than the moods that prevailed in the US and the UK. In the past year France has been the victim of three large terrorist attacks. Social deprivation continues to be an issue in suburbs known as Les Banlieues, and unemployment remains high at almost 10%. Workers have gone out on strike in a range of sectors.

Incumbent President, Francois Hollande, received a record low satisfaction rating of just 4% in October. In all opinion polls, Le Pen is leading the way and almost certain to repeat the feat of her father and reach the run-off election in May.

France Election Far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Since 2010, Le Pen has undergone on a serious PR transformation, toning down many of her remarks and trying to modernise her party. That effort still does not hide the fact that Le Pen is vehemently anti-immigrant; thinks that citizenship should be tied to ethnicity or race; supports the death penalty; is sceptical on climate change; opposes French membership of the EU and NATO; and like Trump and Farage wants closer ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Unlike previous versions of the National Front in France, Le Pen’s Front National have even claimed leftist social causes as their own, with Le Pen openly advocating for gay and women’s rights and harsh criticism of anti-semitism (which has plagued the party in the past, Le Pen’s own father described the holocaust as a “detail of history” and expressed admiration for Marshall Pétain).

The latest opinion polls place Le Pen close to 30% in the first round of voting, if she were to face Hollande in a second round, the polls say she would defeat him handily. Although the polls also say that she would lose a second round election to either Fillon or Juppé, as well as to independent Emmanuel Macron.

So how does this affect Ireland?

Historically Ireland has relied on the French to be an ally at European Council level on a range of issues but in particular when it comes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

In addition, France is Ireland’s:

  • 3rd largest market for Irish indigenous company exports (after the US & UK)
  • 2nd largest global market for food and drinks; first for seafood and lamb
  • 4th largest source of inward investment by number of companies
  • 4th largest tourism market

A Le Pen victory is far from certain but both Brexit and Trump make it a possibility. A Le Pen victory could be the end of the EU and the beginning of global chaos. Ireland depends on membership of the EU and although Brexit will impact this, a Frexit could be fatal to the EU itself.

We will know her opponent by Sunday evening

The main person that will stand against Le Pen will become known on Sunday evening. Both are very experienced and formidable politicians with Fillon being seen as further to the right than Juppé.

Indeed Fillon is currently facing tough questions over his stance on abortion and sex discrimination, while Fillon has also been criticised for his proposed liberal economic reforms, which include cutting half a million public sector jobs and scrapping the 35-hour work week. Fillon is on the record as desiring warmer relations with Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

France Election Alain Juppe and his wife Isabelle attend a meeting in Toulouse, southwestern France, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. Source: Frederic Lancelot

Juppé is seen as the heir apparent to the political legacy of Jacques Chirac and he has remodelled himself as the voice of the people outside of Paris, following a successful stint as Mayor of Bordeaux in the southwest.

Both candidates are seen as strong supporters of the EU and also of the CAP. The first round of voting in the French presidential election will take place in late April, with the second round in early May.

Apart from countries like Canada and Australia, who were insulated from the crash by strong mineral wealth, we have seen governments across the western world, defeated and challenged by a wave of increasingly populist and reactionary politicians and parties.

The world, but especially Ireland, will watch on to see if France will be the latest to elect a populist leader in the guise of Le Pen.

Senator Neale Richmond is the Government spokesperson on EU affairs in Seanad Eireann.

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