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France’s presidential race is a clash of worldviews

Posted by hkarner - 3. April 2017

Date: 01-04-2017
Source: The Economist

Marine Le Pen’s nationalism meets the unrepentant globalism of Emmanuel
Macron

Two against the EU

WHAT did Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s National Front, expect to gain by visiting Moscow on March 24th? Her core supporters relished seeing her with Vladimir Putin, a strong woman standing next to a strongman. Ms Le Pen came away claiming that the world now belongs to nationalist populists such as Mr Putin, Donald Trump, India’s Narendra Modi and, implicitly, herself. Interestingly, the visit did not seem aimed at the usual goal of candidates who go abroad: reassuring voters that they can safely be trusted with foreign policy.

In French campaigns, gravitas-enhancing trips beyond the Hexagone (as mainland France is known) are especially popular with candidates who have little experience of governing. This year Ms Le Pen has been to America (where she was seen sipping coffee in Trump Tower in New York), Germany, Lebanon and Chad. Emmanuel Macron, the young centrist who is tied with her for first place in the polls, has been to Algeria, Britain, Germany, Jordan and Lebanon, in part to reach out to expat voters and donors.Ms Le Pen’s trip to the Kremlin was risky. She needs to broaden her support beyond her current one-quarter of the electorate by appealing to more moderate voters. She hopes to poach some from François Fillon, the centre-right Republican candidate, who has been dogged by corruption claims. (Mr Fillon, too, is chummy with Russia, but that is not what most of his supporters like about him.) Ms Le Pen’s endorsement of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, her wish to pull France out of NATO’s unified military command and the fact that in 2014 her party took a loan of nearly $10m from a Moscow-based bank will not help her lure moderates—or anyone who has been paying attention to Mr Putin’s unlovely record.

Most French voters are not fond of Russia. In a Pew survey in 2015, 70% said they viewed Russia unfavourably and 85% did not trust Mr Putin. So Mr Macron is in the mainstream in calling Ms Le Pen’s fascination with him “toxic”. Her bet, however, is that by celebrating Brexit and hobnobbing with the Russian autocrat, she can present herself as part of a glorious worldwide march of nationalists, who are destined to defeat pusillanimous globalisers such as Mr Macron. She told industrialists in Paris this week that as a “big country”, France does not need others to prosper. She wants to limit foreign trade and migration, reinvigorate ties with France’s former African colonies and withdraw from the EU. She depicts Mr Macron, a former Rothschild banker, as a privileged child of finance in thrall to a crumbling EU “empire”.

François Heisbourg, a foreign-policy expert who has advised Mr Macron, worries that such a strategy could prove effective, especially in the second-round run-off. Public opinion is “hardly enamoured with globalisation”, he notes. Matthew Goodwin of the University of Kent sees Ms Le Pen’s outreach to other populist leaders as an attempt to associate herself with “an alternative world order”.

Maybe so, but it is a scary one. A strategist for Ms Le Pen’s team recently travelled to London to tell investors that her plan to quit the euro and hold a referendum on EU withdrawal need be no more disruptive than Brexit. That would hardly be reassuring even if it were true, which it is not.

Ms Le Pen says that what matters is not whether you are left or right, but whether you are a nationalist or a globalist. Mr Macron agrees. This week he told businessfolk in Paris that Brexit will prove a lamentable and costly error. He also flew 9,400km (5,840 miles) to the island of Réunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean. Globalisation is a fact, he said; the answer is limited, “intelligent regulation”. Plenty of French bigwigs agree, too. A Socialist former prime minister, Manuel Valls, endorsed Mr Macron this week, as did several centre-right senators.

Yet some 40% of voters remain undecided. If, as polls currently suggest, the contest comes down to Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen in the second-round run-off, they will not be able to complain that they were not offered a clear choice.

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