PARIS — Whatever the result of France’s presidential election, the choice will resonate far beyond France’s borders, from Syrian battlefields to Hong Kong trading floors and the halls of the U.N. Security Council.
The future of Europe is at stake as this country chooses a president in an election unlike any other, one that may reshape France’s post-war identity and indicate whether global populism is ascendant or on the decline.
As untested centrist Emmanuel Macron and nationalist Marine Le Pen head into a May 7 runoff after dominating Sunday’s first-round vote, here are a few reasons why this race matters:
RISK OF A FREXIT
Le Pen hopes to pull France out of the European Union and its shared euro currency — a blow that would be far worse than Britain’s exit and could spell death for the EU, the euro and the whole idea of European unity borne from the blood of World War II. France is a founding member of the EU, and its main driver along with former rival Germany.
Most of the 11 candidates in the first round campaigned against the EU, blamed for myriad economic and security woes, and Le Pen will carry their banner proudly into the runoff.
Financial markets expressed relief at Macron’s lead in the first round, but they’ve been jittery over a possible Frexit, fearing controls on money transfers, capital flight, a plague of defaults and lawsuits on bonds and contracts. Le Pen’s team downplays apocalyptic scenarios, arguing that the euro is headed for a breakup eventually anyway.
Le Pen also blames free trade pacts for killing French jobs and wants to renegotiate them, which would cause a financial tangle for the rest of the EU and France’s trade partners.
TRUMP AND POPULISM
If Le Pen wins, that would be a resounding victory for the populist wave reflected by the votes for President Donald Trump and Brexit. Many French workers who have lost out because of globalization are similarly fed up with establishment parties and especially attracted by promises of ditching the status quo.
Polls currently suggest Le Pen will have a difficult time convincing enough voters to join her in the second round. But she could pull in support from supporters of far left Jean-Luc Melenchon who share her anger at the global financial system and the global elite.
Macron called for hope in Europe in his victory speech, and mainstream conservative and Socialist parties that threw their weight behind him are committed to European unity. Macron has framed himself as a bulwark against Trump’s protectionism.
ASSAD’S SYRIA AND PUTIN’S RUSSIA
A nuclear power with a seat on the U.N. Security Council and tens of thousands of troops around the world, France is a key U.S. ally in the campaign against the Islamic State group and a major diplomatic player.
If elected, Macron would likely keep up the French operations against extremists in Iraq and Syria and Africa’s Sahel region — and keep up pressure on Russia over Ukraine and its actions to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Le Pen, on the other hand, firmly backs Assad and distanced herself from Trump over recent U.S. airstrikes targeting Assad’s regime.
Le Pen also met recently with Russian President Vladimir Putin and would push for lifting sanctions against Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine.