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Why you should know what's going on in France

By Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd)
May 02, 2017 11:01 IST
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'France's challenges revolve around an uncertain economic future, multiple terrorist attacks on French soil and a European migration crisis tied to the situation in Syria and Iraq.'
Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd) explains what is at stake in the May 7 French presidential election.

Demonstrators wearing masks of Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. 

IMAGE: Demonstrators with masks depicting Marine Le Pen, the National Front candidate, left, Emmanuel Macron, the En Marche candidate, right, and his wife Brigitte, centre, during a May Day march in Marseille. Photograph: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

The elections in France are not the easiest to understand; not for people who may not have time to join the dots of geopolitics and strategic issues around the globe and need their news on the move. A more simplified understanding may therefore help.

Some years ago traveling into Paris on the Eurostar through the Chunnel, I arrived at Garre du Nord station. The approach had much graffiti on the side walls quite unexpected of a European capital.

However, what really struck on disembarkation at the station and the walk through to the nearby underground facility was the ethnic mix of people living in the area. They were mostly from Franco-phonic countries of North Africa, but the diversity was truly surprising and it was in the heart of the capital city not a distant suburb.

Speaking to Parisians one got some understanding of the issue. Post 1945 as the War ended and France and other European nations too stepped into reconstruction they threw open their doors to immigrants; language made much difference as did the colonial connection.

It is like Indians finding their comfort zone in London and other UK cities. The lower end jobs were subscribed by immigrants for a better quality of life than what they could have afforded in their home countries and were grateful for the citizenship they were granted.

The later generations born and educated as French citizens vied for equal opportunities with the original inhabitants but were denied in many cases due to ethnicity or faith.

Although the French football team is a mix of ethnicities the Muslim Diaspora in France is also among the most easily recruited elements for ISIS.

That explains the antipathy that the original French people have against the immigrants, most of who are now naturalised citizens.

There have been multiple terror attacks in France and thereafter in Europe bringing a worrying specter of intolerance in their wake, understandably so.

Islamophobia may be a worldwide phenomenon, but it is strong all over Europe in particular due to the attempts of first Al Qaeda and now ISIS to target Western civilisation at large; the exploitation of immigrants to execute this has been a common phenomenon.

Immigration therefore is one of the core issues today in the French presidential election, perhaps one of the most important polls in the history of Europe's democracy.

French presidential candidate Marie Le Pen

IMAGE: Marine Le Pen blows a kiss after a campaign rally in Villepinte, near Paris. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

It is important to recall just what the French nation is for most of us.

For me, France is all about style, finesse, everything good in life, but most importantly, 'Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.'

That phrase with the values enshrined was a legacy of the Age of Enlightenment which saw the greatest milestone in the struggle of people against authoritarianism, the French Revolution of 1789.

From the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 21st, in the long journey the world has seen many political and ideological troughs and crests and we are once again in an era of uncertainty with religion suddenly thrown centre stage.

Europe for long has been the centre of development of international trends. From colonialism to the industrial revolution and consumerism through fast paced development.

Just a few years ago we witnessed the end of a Cold War and the desire to flatten the world as Internet connectivity and data-based technology took primacy; globalisation became the watchword.

Yet, in just a few years there is regression to isolationism, closed borders, security based on affinity of colour, ethnicity and faith and vigilantism against immigrants.

Of course, the central theme around which the response is built is Islamism and the tendency of Islamists who are now in fairly large numbers all over Europe is to attempt to dictate discourse and even alter the way of life of the local people.

Islamism has also brought societal tension and violence in the form of terror attacks.

The political dispensation the world over faces the challenges of Islamism, effects of sub national conflicts and migration of population. This has given rise to the trend to go back to boundaries and nationalism.

Trumpism in the US was the second manifestation of the trends associated with reverse globalisation and greater focus on the sons of the soil, with Brexit being the first. Britain through a referendum expressed a desire to be out of the unifying effect and controls of the European Union, to decide its own destiny.

The US voted against the Clinton liberal strand, but recently Holland voted back Mark Rutt to give a faint hope to the socialist, liberal and centrist agenda although Rutt is counted as centre right when compared to Geert Wilders who represents the extreme right.

While Holland could only give a trend it is France which is more decidedly linked to Europe's ideological and political future.

The April 23 polls in France for deciding the next President to succeed Francois Hollande -- who incidentally has not run for the post -- were the first round under the French system.

Direct voting has ended to decide the two front-runners for a second round which will be conducted on Sunday, May 7.

The French system allows the electorate to ponder on its first choice and is therefore at the end a very fair reflection of the mood of the nation.

Supporters of French Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron 

IMAGE: Emmanuel Macron's supporters at a rally in Paris. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

France's challenges as much as any European nation's challenges revolve around an uncertain economic future, multiple terrorist attacks on French soil and a European migration crisis tied to the situation in Syria and Iraq.

The scepticism of Trump with the European Union and NATO and the decision for Brexit across the channel only add to the dilemma.

It is also known that Russia is working overtime through clandestine intervention in the elections so as to influence a result which will disfavour a strong European Union and NATO.

What happens in France could well be cemented by Germany in September, but first the outcome has to be awaited in the second and final round on May 7.

The elections themselves have shown a decline in the popularity, influence and power of mainstream political parties.

The two leading candidates who will go into the final round are as expected Emmanuel Macron, 39, and Marine Le Pen. 48.

Those who fell by the wayside in the first round were Francois Fillon of the Republican Party, Jean-Luc Melenchen of the Left and Benoit Hamon of the Socialist Party.

Macron, also known as the French Obama, is essentially a political centrist with a core base among young urban progressives.

On the European Union he has stated, 'We need Europe because Europe makes us bigger, because Europe makes us stronger.'

More importantly, on immigration he has come to completely support German Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling her stand as reflective of common European values.

His approach to dealing with political Islam appears to be the strengthening of collective intelligence and branding ISIS as un-Islamic, thus appealing to the strength of secularism and dignity to fight the radicals.

Macron is, however, often been referred as the candidate of the financial people. Much will depend now how the voters who voted other candidates take to him and his comparative lack of experience.

Marine Le Pen is almost exactly the opposite of Macron.

Called the 'French Trump,' she is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front party.

Her campaign has been on a nationalist platform. She has called for a referendum on pulling France out of the European Union, abandoning the euro single currency, halting immigration and restoring controls at French borders.

In other words she supports isolationism and French solutions to French problems.

Le Pen's beliefs may be reflective of a top of the head desire of much of Europe each time a terror attack is experienced.

However, it is believed that when France votes with its heart it will probably go back to the popular belief of secularism.

How the voters of the other candidates take to her right wing ideology will decide her success or failure.

Le Pen and Macron polled less than half the popular votes in the elections, but will now battle out on May 7.

From now till then under France's fascinating electoral system, the voters whose candidates did not make to the final round will need to decide their leaning.

Macron appears to be the one who could pull favour, but with what happened in the US on the final day, no one should bet on that.

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