How terrorism is impacting on the French presidential elections

By Professor Gabriele Suder
Principal Fellow, Melbourne Business School; French-German International Relations Expert

With the recent terrorist attacks in Stockholm and London, and with Syria and North Korea dominating national and international news in France, the forthcoming French elections are bound to take place in a very particular context.

The number of fatal attacks in OECD countries rose by 650% last year, in one year, reports the Global Terrorism Index (2016). Looking at vehicle attacks in Europe only, there were five traumatizing events in just the past eight months.

Global terrorism has changed to so-called ‘soft targets’, using low-resource, cross-border modes of operation that appear totally unpredictable. The public is experiencing fear collectively and individually on a scale unknown over the past two to three decades.

France suffered three of the worst international terrorism attacks in Europe in the past two years alone, and two of them were among the most deadly land attacks in the last 50 years.  The most high-profile internationally were the deadly attacks against the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015; later that year gunmen and suicide bombers simultaneously targeted public areas in Paris, killing 130 people; and on Bastille Day in July last year more than 80 people were killed when a truck drove through a crowd in Nice.

Politicians, voters imply, appear unable to respond effectively. Nor are they perceived as capable of brining jobs and economic virtuosity back. Who will provide a solution to a situation in which concerns are that multifaceted?

In the forthcoming round of the French elections, Marine Le Pen (Front National/Extreme right); Emmanuel Macron (Independent/Centre left) and Francois Fillon (Les Republicains/Conservative), are the strongest contestants at this stage of the campaign.

Amongst their respective manifestos, they proclaim security programs that vary, yet that all agree on the need to boost military and police forces and their funding.

Le Pen and Fillon: Anti-Islam and pro-Russia in Syria

Both Le Pen and Fillon are seen to rely on a greater police force internally and Russian influence externally, in their hope of fighting the so-called Islamic State in Syria, and hence terrorism.  Indeed, both Fillon and Le Pen got close to Putin, and support an end to sanctions imposed due to the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Only did Fillon start to call this move “dangerous” recently. Their Russophile discourses, in their various nuances, distinguish them from any other candidate.

Le Pen, a former lawyer, whose party has financial interests in good relations with Russia also because of a loan to the party from there, condemns the US strikes against the regime. She claims she will reinstate France's national borders and boost the military budget within an isolationist doctrine.

She has been able to unite the various streams of right-wing extremism in France while fostering her Front National party’s electorate of workers, voting for her rather than for their traditional left orientation. Also, more and more babyboomers, workers and retirees are expected to vote for her as a reflex to immigration issues, Brexit and Trump-ism, in the hope of electing a powerful woman who can bring certain, direct, national solutions.

In contrast to her father who had made it to the second round in 2002 but then miserably failed, Le Pen is perceived by many as someone who could be head of state, who is less focused on racist discourse and is not a convicted holocaust denier (although she has recently caused a storm by indicating she doesn’t believe France should be held responsible for handing French Jews to Nazis during that era). The fact that she wants to pull France out of the euro zone, curb immigration, close Mosques, and hold a referendum on European Union membership, all in one breath, could become a secondary consideration and socially quasi-acceptable, in her voters view, if she can bring back security and jobs.

Fillon has shown himself as conservative, Catholic, and an opponent of gay marriage. He wants to limit migration, and centers his security plans on Islam as the main issue, having proclaimed his beliefs that it is the one religion that is at the source of crime and terror in France. He plans to increase security forces whilst at the same time reducing public expenditure by 500,000 public sector jobs (versus Macron’s 200,000), which seems incoherent to many.

Macron: pro-EU globalist supporting migrant communities and US strikes against Assad in Syria

Macron currently supports US strikes in Syria, as part of a diplomatic and political roadmap to security. He’s also pro-European and sees much potential in national and European initiatives, including a reinforcement of Frontex (which coordinates and develops European border management in line with the EU fundamental rights charter) whilst the issues of the refugee crisis have not subsided.  He plans to continue France's military operations abroad, while increasing the national police force. This may please moderate voters, versus the only other alternatives.

Though Macron is seen as very inexperienced in politics and specifically, security, he holds a wildcard, notably the former director of an elite police counter-terrorism unit, Jean-Michel Fauvergue who will represent Macron’s party in June legislative elections.  

Voter turnout will be crucial

Will moderates vote? Voting in France is not compulsory, so people may simply stay home. Why is that an issue? Well, a candidate needs more that 50% votes to win, that is, of votes cast altogether that day. Because extremists tend to vote, whilst citizens who don’t trust the choice of candidates might not do so, extremist parties benefit from absenteeism.

That is clearly a huge risk when you believe in democratic values.  This shows also the very limits of the effective modern democratic system. If the citizen is not well informed and willing to vote, the French voting system will show its weaknesses.

A lack of knowledge in this regard means that even voters strongly believing in freedom and democracy won’t necessarily appreciate the extent to which their absenteeism plays into extremists, isolationist and populist hands.

The dangers of ‘uninformed’ voting, of absenteeism, and of the greater motivation of extreme voters, are hard to measure and generally not well illustrated in polls. By consequence, many potential voters will not cast their vote, and thus indirectly enhance extremist tendencies. Or they will vote against a manifesto rather than for one, against a security plan rather than for one.

They will be influenced by the internal scandals and issues, and economic fears. Externally, they may react to perceived and real dangers of terrorism and geopolitical turmoil, migration and Syrian and North Korean dangers and Chinese economic power. Other issues include a Russia that is interested in a weaker Europe and USA so it can enhance its geopolitical power, a US Presidency that remains unpredictable in its policies and actions, and a weakened Europe through Brexit. That is much to deal with, and should enhance rather than limit voters’ engagement. It does not.

What happens next in Europe, including in Germany, in their capacity to deal with terrorism, security and the future of democracy, is intimately linked to these French elections. Will voters opt against an isolationist, extremist future within a climate of fear and unpredictability? Or will they allow the dangerous blend of economic uncertainty and terrorism to blind them?

Banner image: A memorial for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. Credit: Quinn Norton/Flickr


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