The first round of the 2017 French Presidential election on 23 April ended up pretty much as predicted – the top two candidates, garnering between them around 44% of the votes cast in a 78% turnout, who will compete in the runoff second round on 7 May, were independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far right leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen. So, the major political parties have been ousted and the contest becomes one of pragmatism meeting ideology, according to observers on the ground yesterday.
From the defence and security perspective, it is perhaps worth devoting a minute or two to a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise, looking at their previous statements on the issues, in an attempt to determine what a win by either remaining candidate might mean for France, for Europe and for the globe in which the nation remains an important player, with an independent nuclear deterrent, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and the world’s seventh largest defence budget in 2016, according to the recent assessment from the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research.
Madame Le Pen, the worthy heiress to her father’s political legacy, is anti- a great deal, but NATO is quite high on her list. As President, she would withdraw from NATO as well as the EU, reintroduce military service and increase the defence budget massively, from its current 1.8% of GDP to 3% - with the understanding that money to pay for it would come from savings made in leaving NATO and Europe. (Has nobody in her camp looked at where the so-called Brexit dividend disappeared to within just hours of last June’s referendum?).
Monsieur Macron appears somewhat more defence-friendly, advocating France meet its commitment to a defence budget of 2% of GDP and seemingly in favour of working closely with NATO and European allies in common defence policies. He is also on record as stating he would immediately add a further 10,000 police and would restore a network of field agents tasked with the counterterrorism role. His stated top foreign policy goal is “to kill ISIS,” and he seems comfortable with working more closely with the United States in order to achieve it. Marine Le Pen, by contrast, advocates a closer working relationship with Moscow as the solution to the problems in Syria.
Naturally, movement towards centre spectrum from these apparent polar opposites could be expected in the early days of the new presidency: no manifesto survives contact with the post-inauguration real world. And therefore there is little inherent in either candidate’s defence policies, as we currently understand them, that deserves to be highlighted as a beacon of hope or harbinger of doom. After all – it is the French people who will decide which one wins through and the nation has a habit of tactical and protest voting that makes polls notoriously in accurate. However, one thing that appears crystal clear already is that Monsieur Macron is an altogether more cerebral and pragmatic politician than his opponent, eschewing ideology for worthy attempts at practical problem-solving. Although mired in controversy, his earlier attempts to untangle the rigid labour laws stifling some aspects of innovation in France were well intentioned – and his subsequent recognition of the difficulties involved speaks well of his likely response to obstacles to be hurdled should he win the race to the Elysée Palace.