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The World Watches the Ballot Box

21 Apr 2022
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
A child waves the french flag after the elections in 2017.
Source: Flickr, Lorie Shaull

In these days of faltering global democracies, three key elections should be closely watched. The outcomes are far from certain, but they will all carry far-reaching implications.

Imminent, this weekend is the epoch-making French election, which will affect the 26 other nations of the European Union. The second is the 21 May poll in Australia, largely a domestic matter of little global consequence. The third, by far the most worrying, is the midterm congressional election in the United States, which could return control of Capitol Hill to the Republican Party and pave the way for a second term in the White House for Donald Trump.

For many, this could just be a bad dream. Aficionados of Scott Morrison excuse his fawning friendship with Donald Trump while president as the required duty of any Australian prime minister. Having studied or reported on more than a dozen presidents, I can recall many with flaws, but none were as odious, autocratic, or disdainful of democracy as Trump. He has yet to be punished for trying to overturn the election he lost to Joe Biden or for inciting the riot at the Capitol. Why he has not been sanctioned by the Europeans for plotting against Ukraine with Vladimir Putin is beyond me.

You would have to hope that the brilliant and detailed inside story by Robert Draper, “This is Trump Pulling a Putin” in The New York Times last weekend, which reveals Trump’s conspiratorial discussions with the Russian president, would be more than enough for the Republicans to dump their de facto leader and start the search for another candidate. In the article, Fiona Hill, an acknowledged global authority on Russia and adviser to three presidents, charts her firsthand experiences of Trump. It is one of the best pieces of journalism I have read in recent times.

The legacy of the Trump presidency also hangs like a dark cloud over run-off of the presidential election in France this weekend. French elections have traditionally been a battle between the right and the left, but in the first round of this year’s contest, the mainstream parties on both sides all but wiped out Anne Hidalgo, the candidate of the Socialist Party. For many years, the Socialist Party had been a dominant force in French government. Yet Hidalgo could muster only 1.8 percent of the national vote, while the centre-right republican candidate Valerie Pecresse managed to pull in just 4.8 percent.

Most polls and commentators expect Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent, to win a second term on Sunday against the woman he beat last time, the far-right Marine Le Pen. Except Le Pen has now disowned this label, seeking to rebrand herself as a French patriot. Using a phrase that was reminiscent of Trump, she memorably told the United Nations that the future does not belong to the globalist but to the patriots. Le Pen said, “There is no more left and right, the real cleavage is between the patriots and the globalists,” before going on to rubbish Macron for talking “globish.”

The debate over globalisation may excite the pundits, but it is unlikely to exercise the minds of French voters whose principle concerns appear to be rising living costs, specifically those of energy and food – both of which have been seriously affected by the war between Russia and Ukraine. With up to two million Ukrainians now seeking refuge in the European Union – and being warmly welcomed almost everywhere – Le Pen’s favourite campaign theme, immigration, is on the backburner. She has latched on to affordability and fairness as her main themes.

Her other desire is to weaken the EU, another ambition of Trump, whereas Macron’s intention is to increase its power and authority. It goes without saying that the possibility of a Le Pen win terrifies the majority of Europeans outside France. Viktor Orban’s recent reelection in Hungary served as a reminder that Le Pen’s campaign must be taken seriously. Macron knows this only too well, as he campaigns furiously for the floating votes of the millions who once voted Socialist.

Aged 53, this is Marine Le Pen’s third attempt to win the presidency, and she undoubtedly feels she is closer to victory than ever before. On the campaign trail, she appears fresh, lively, and mostly smiling. Le Pen presents herself as a single mother of three children familiar with the needs and problems of the average French person, whereas Macron likes to look as though he belongs in the Elysee Palace, though his critics see him as privileged and elitist.

Le Pen has been clever in organising and orchestrating her campaign, spending less time in the salons and centres of the big cities like Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Lyon, and criss-crossing the country picking out towns and villages where unemployment and poverty are rife. Over the last six months, she has popped up in many small towns including some in the Dordogne which were once buoyant in the wine trade but have fallen on harder times. She has also been present in picturesque tourist centres in Normandy and Gascony, which have not seen the visitor levels of pre-COVID-19 times.

At all these places, she finds a useful setting for a television broadcast or a radio soundbite. With the focus on the cost of living and the division between rich and poor, Le Pen is reminding people that it was Macron who scraped the wealth tax. Inevitably, Macron has been drawn directly into this debate, and none more so than last week when Le Pen expressed her outrage at the news that Carlos Tavares, chief executive of Stellantis, the company formed by the merger of the French PSA with Fiat-Chrysler into a global giant, was getting a pay package worth A$27.8 million a year. This is roughly three hundred times the average pay of a Peugeot car worker. President Macron immediately jumped in, calling the package “shocking and excessive” and pledging to campaign for the EU to put a cap on executive pay. It should be said that Tavares, a former Renault executive, has presided over a period in which the company has turned losses into healthy profits.

So, could Le Pen become France’s first woman president? Perhaps not, but the patriot is certain to give the globalist a run for his money.  Yet the underlying significance of this election is the deep decline of the Socialist party, the party of Francois Mitterrand that has been at the centre of French politics since the Second World War. How it can be revived is a question that no one yet seems able to answer.

Colin Chapman is editor-at-large of Australian Outlook and a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Colin is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He was president of AIIA New South Wales.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.