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Africans wary that French political landscape is swinging to right

French far-right party Rassemblement National presidential candidate Marine Le Pen arrives to deliver a speech at a gathering with supporters as part of a campaign visit in Avignon on Friday. Picture: Christophe Simon/AFP

French far-right party Rassemblement National presidential candidate Marine Le Pen arrives to deliver a speech at a gathering with supporters as part of a campaign visit in Avignon on Friday. Picture: Christophe Simon/AFP

Published Apr 17, 2022

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By Koffi Kouakou

Demomised. Written off many times for her staunch far-right political positions, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Rassemblement National (National Rally) still stands. Last week, she was one of the top two winners of the first round in France’s presidential election, with 23.41% support.

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She will challenge the incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, who won with 27.6% in a run-off on 24 April. France, Europe and the world are anxious and on the edge to see if she can win this time and become the first female president in France.

French presidential elections create a sense of doomsday and a one-way tough choice against the far right. This one is no different. It looks serious and tense as usual. While new polls by IFOP give Macron the lead with 51%, and Le Pen 49%, her chances seem high this time, given the narrow margin and the depressed mood in France. Don’t count her out yet. And there are many reasons for it.

Her opponent, a former investment banker and known to be the darling of the wealthy’s probusiness reforms, has spurred a general malaise in France. Many on the left find Macron to be disconnected from the hardships of the masses and see him as a “president of the rich”.

They believe his pension reforms are misguided and have generated anger and numerous protests by the yellow vests. They also accuse him of mishandling the Covid-19 crisis. Even more troubling, his mentor Jacques Attali, the adviser to former president François Mitterrand, recognises that Macron has had a tough presidency, failed to keep his early promises to make France great again and could have done better. He thinks the re-election of Macron is not a done deal yet, and that Le Pen could win the run-off.

While he warns French voters to sober up about Macron’s failures, he also asked them to reject Le Pen outright. But he also cited a few reasons why she could win. First, no incumbent president candidate has been re-elected after a second term since Mitterrand, and Macron falls under this category. Second, a high rate of widespread abstentions could play in favour of his challenger. Third, French voters could buy into the “anybody-but-Macron” credo, and tip the elections in favour of Le Pen. Fourth, the narrative of the far right is losing its extreme doomsday image.

Today, Le Pen appears to have softened her outlook and manifesto toward winning the hearts and minds of French voters. She looks moderate, polished, more acceptable, legitimate, reasonable than many extreme farright candidates.

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As such, she could attract moderate voices. Finally, Attali thinks it’s time to face the reality that Le Pen could be elected. So what would happen if she won? Let’s look at what it means and takes to be the president of France.

In a brilliant introduction to the biography of Mitterrand, C’était François Mitterrand (It was François Mitterrand), Attali spells out a life experiencedom terms of reference of the French president, and writes: “Presiding over the French Republic cannot be improvised. It requires a profound knowledge of the country, a passion for its people, exceptional administrative and legal skills, a rigorous analysis of the strategic issues of the time, a considerable capacity for work, a large memory, an immense physical strength. “And also a character of great self-control, an ability to anticipate, a moral compass, a provision to admit their mistakes and change their mind; finally, and perhaps most importantly, a vision of France and the world, and a strong enough project to afford to be indifferent to the criticism by accepting, if necessary, a temporary unpopularity. François Mitterrand had it all.”

This high-ended list of presidential qualities is hard to meet for anyone aspiring to the French presidency. Did Macron match up to them? Can he do so during his second term if elected? I doubt it. It will take more years, if not decades, for the youthful Macron to meet those pantheonic credentials.

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Indeed, it’s tough to be president of France. But can Le Pen make the cut and ascend to the presidential seat at Elysée? Let’s suppose she does. This is a bold and counter-intuitive prediction with enormous consequences for France, the world and particularly Africa. First, let’s buy into the fearmongering about Le Pen.

Many, like Attali, The Economist newspaper, Europhiles and globalists, believe that the “implementation of her manifesto would plunge France into an unprecedented and largely irreversible crisis, of which its voters would be the first victims”, says Attali.

On immigration, religion, especially Islam and identity politics, many of the three to five million voters of African descent in France worry that if elected she will be hostile to them. She intends to “withdraw their access to health care, family and social allowances, to prevent them from working, to withdraw their French nationality”.

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Her foreign policy will be bluntly detrimental to Africa, many say. So, they will refuse to cast their votes for her. Le Pen is hard core on justice, security and culture in France. She wants to tighten laws mainly against foreigners. On the EU, she adopts an independist Brexit, or Frexit, approach.

She loathes the authoritarian bureaucracy of the EU and Nato and would limit France’s attachments to them. She likes Orban and is a fan of president Vladimir Putin of Russia. Let’s rethink the unthinkable and imagine Le Pen as the next president of France.

How should Africans deal with Le Pen, the matriarch of the traditional far-right party who has managed to detoxify herself and her party from the stench of extremism inherited from her father? I suspect that she will moderate her ways as she assumes the realities of presidential power. Her hardline views might also help Africans honestly reassess their relationship with France.

Whatever the outcomes of the polls, only the results will seal the anxieties of French voters. But one thing is sure, the French political landscape is dangerously swinging to the right. It will be a somewhat xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant future, not afrocentric. Vivre la nouvelle France!

* Kouakou is an Africa analyst and senior research fellow at The Centre of Africa China at the University of Johannesburg

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