On April 21, two days before the first round of the French elections, Emmanuel Comte, a lecturer in European history at UC Berkeley, provided a comprehensive overview to the background of France’s political problems, contextualizing the positions of the then four frontrunners of the election within this framework: Emmanuel Macron, François Fillon, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
To begin, Comte highlighted the public problems in France that guide political life, namely unemployment and the exclusion of French suburbanites. Youth unemployment in particular is a problem that affects mostly those with an African or Asian immigrant background. The regulation of the labor market, Comte described, has and will be for the years to come the core political problem in France. On top of this, France has a massive public debt and has not achieved much success in international trade in recent years. With regards to the exclusion of French suburbanites, many belonging to this group hate France because they believe that it is the root of their social problems – for example, the education system, plight of companies and increased police presence in the suburbs create tension for residents. The presidential race preceding the April 23 vote featured 11 candidates, though, according to Comte, only four were viable.
Comte began by describing the platform of the Gaullist candidate, François Fillon, who served as Prime Minister from 2007-2012. Fillon looked to transform the labor market by campaigning for the 39-hour workweek, a lower minimum wage, and a reduction in the social contributions of businesses. As Comte explained, he was not a candidate with coherent social policy, but his foreign policy platform advocated traditionally close ties to Russia. Then, he discussed the leftwing populist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who sought to increase wages and increase public spending; however, Mélenchon adopted an anti-Europe platform, making, according to Comte, many of his policies seem outlandish and difficult to implement. The last two candidates Comte discussed were the two who won the first round of elections on April 23 and remain eligible for the presidency: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Macron, a centrist candidate, advocates for unemployment insurance and, like Fillon, wants to reduce contributions of businesses. On foreign policy, he is the only Europe-oriented candidate and is less of an advocate for rapprochement with Russia. On the other hand, Marine Le Pen, a rightwing populist candidate, wishes for France to completely exit the Eurozone, close borders, and achieve closer links to Russia. From her point of view, in transitioning to the franc, the French minimum wage would increase due to inflation; she also wishes to devalue the proposed currency and pay debts using francs.
Following the lecture, a lively discussion ensued between Comte and the 40 in attendance. Questions ranged from parallels between the French and American currencies and minimum wages, potential sanctions against Russia, to the similarities between Mélenchon’s and Le Pen’s economic policies. Overall, Comte provided an enlightening perspective on the future of France, pointing to yet another example of a country with the potential to undergo drastic shifts in political leanings.