The 2017 presidential election in France will be crucial for the future of the country. The result could lead to a major reshaping of the political landscape with the rise of political parties that have never been in power before. Or it could favor a regrouping along new dividing lines that no longer pit Left against Right but rather those who promote economic openness and European integration against the supporters of trade protectionism, a total ban on immigration, and an end to France’s membership of the EU.

At the same time, this election looks more and more like the last chance for France to halt its continuous economic decline of the last twenty years and set up the necessary reforms that previous governments have never seriously tackled. The country should urgently seize that opportunity.

Pierre Vimont
Vimont is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. His research focuses on the European Neighborhood Policy, transatlantic relations, and French foreign policy.
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This election is going to be one of a kind, with an unprecedented impact on the future of France’s relations with the EU and, probably, on the future of Europe itself. Depending on which president is elected in the second round on May 7, the outcome could well be the gradual collapse of the EU following a decision by a new French government to leave the union—or, conversely, a significant relaunch of European integration under the influence of a reinvigorated French leadership.

For this second option to succeed, much will depend on the capacity of the new French president to redress the economic performance of the country and improve its competitiveness. If this can be done, France could find itself in possession of renewed credibility and be perceived once again as a genuine and solid partner in tandem with Germany. History shows how important this partnership has been in all the significant progress recorded by the EU in the past. With new vigor, Paris and Berlin could dispel the feeling in recent years of a duo that has lost its momentum and could open the door to a substantial breakthrough. Moreover, France’s rekindled influence under the leadership of a genuinely pro-European president would help the union in the current debate about its future—if only by providing innovative ideas, as France has done in the past.

Such a positive perspective can unfold only if the pro-European camp comes through in this election. For the time being, three distinctive trends are competing in the campaign. One, principally embodied in Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front and, to a lesser extent, by Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far Left, is firmly opposed to the EU, is pleading for an end to France’s participation in the eurozone, and is calling for a withdrawal from the EU.

A second, supported by the centrist Emmanuel Macron, is advocating more European integration through the reinforcement of the eurozone mechanisms and a substantial leap forward in fields such as defense, climate change, and sustainable growth.

The third group, led by center-right candidate François Fillon and a few others, emphasizes the need for a more balanced institutional process, which means less power for the Brussels institutions and a greater role for the EU member states.

Rarely has the European issue held such a preeminent place on all the candidates’ platforms as in this electoral campaign. Yet, paradoxically, the same candidates do not seem to show much appetite to discuss Europe. This state of play reflects both the growing importance Europe has progressively gained in French politics over the last twenty years and the strongly divisive factor it has become for the main political parties. From the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty to the 2005 vote on the draft EU constitution, Right and Left have struggled, often in vain, to preserve their unity when faced with the prospect of more or less European integration.

Europe has become one of the main dividing lines between the candidates in the current campaign. Yet, this new political reality must not be misunderstood: as much as the French population can be highly critical of the existing management of European affairs and strongly skeptical of some proposed aspects of EU progress, it retains a genuine commitment to the euro and to EU membership.

In what is still an open contest, and contrary to Britain’s June 2016 referendum on EU membership, the French presidential election will not be the final word on the European issue. Long, protracted political battles are still to come if supporters of a French EU exit win the day in the presidential ballot. The French legislative election in June 2017 would have to deliver a majority for the anti-EU camp and a referendum would need to take place before any Frexit could happen.

From that perspective, what is known about current French public opinion indicates a bumpy ride ahead if the pro-exit supporters have their way in the presidential contest. Additionally, lessons learned since the Brexit vote have had an impact in France and have already stirred up a skeptical attitude toward any temptation to follow the UK’s path.

Finally, beyond the issue of French membership in the EU lies a much more important and long-term challenge for the next French president. Rather than opting for Frexit, which still appears far from the mind-set of most French voters, the new president will have the burdensome responsibility of managing the transition to a new Europe as the continent confronts the UK’s departure from the EU, the threat of Russian pressure, and the unpredictability of the new U.S. administration. Rarely have the candidates in a French presidential election faced such an awesome prospect and such an urgent need to harness the partnership with Germany while delivering inspiring leadership to the rest of the EU.

In all electoral contests, domestic topics usually prevail on voters’ agendas and make the difference in the end. Yet in this presidential ballot, it may not be that far-fetched to say that the future balance of power in Europe is at stake, even if most of the electorate—and perhaps some of the candidates—are unaware of it.

This blog post is the third in a set of contributions providing insights into the 2017 French presidential election.