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French elections: What would a Le Pen or Macron win mean for Germany?

France will go to the polls on Sunday in a nail-biting showdown between the liberal Emmanuel Macron and far-right Marine Le Pen. What would the ramifications of a win for either of them mean for Germany?

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen go head-to-head in a televised debate on April 20th, 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP | Ludovic Marin

On Sunday, April 24th, the French electorate will face a choice between two radically different politicians: the liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right EU-sceptic Marine Le Pen.

In some ways, the situation appears to be very similar to the one that arose five years ago. Both of the same politicians are facing off against each other in the final round of the presidential elections, and Macron appears to have a slight edge over his opponent.

However, the past half a decade has seen Macron battle crisis after crisis, from the Ukraine war to the ‘Yellow Vests’ protests and the Covid pandemic. That, along with his reputation as a “president of the rich”, has taken the shine off his image significantly.

Russia’s Ukraine invasion has also cast Le Pen’s campaign in a new light. Her party, Rassemblement National, received a €9 million and €2 million loan from Russian-based bank that helped fund her 2017 election campaign. According to imprisoned Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny, “the bank is Putin’s notorious money-laundering outfit”. 

With the situation made even more tense by the ongoing war on European soil, this could be a decisive election not only for France, but Germany and Europe as a whole. Here’s what you need to know.

What do the latest polls say?

According to The Independent, Macron maintained a 12-point lead over Le Pen as the two entered the final stretch of the election campaign on Friday. Politico’s poll of polls placed the two politicians closer together, with Le Pen on 45 percent and Macron on 55 percent.

The decisive question on election day will be how many left-wing voters are able to hold their nose and vote for the centrist to stop Le Pen getting in, and how many would-be voters will ultimately stay home. At the moment, pollsters are predicting a historically low turnout on Sunday, with 80 percent of the French electorate describing the campaign as “poor quality” so far. 

What would a Macron victory mean for Germany?

  • The European “power couple”

Macron’s party, En Marche, is a notoriously pro-EU party and the liberal politician has maintained close links with Germany throughout his time in government. 

In fact, former Chancellor Angela Merkel had such a friendly relationship with Macron that the two were considered something of a European Traumpaar (dream couple) when Merkel was still in power. His perceived Germanophilia was so strong that there was even a conspiracy theory that he intended to give the Alsace-Lorraine region, which was previously seized by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian war, back to his neighbour.  

READ ALSO: ‘France loves you’ – Macron hosts Merkel for farewell visit

Merkel and Macron

Merkel and Macron share a warm embrace in Paris in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thibault Camus

Though this is clearly nonsense, the two countries have maintained close links in spite of Germany’s change in leadership. When Olaf Scholz (SPD) took the reins of Europe’s largest economy, his first diplomatic visit was a lunch date with Macron.

“This visit is a very important moment for building the solid foundations of cooperation between our two countries,” Macron said at the time. “Not only for the bilateral relationship itself, but also to discuss European issues, the major international issues.” 

In a televised election debate on Wednesday, the centrist politician reiterated this view.

“We need a stronger Europe,” he said. “This requires a strong Franco-German pair.”

He also spoke of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which was developed in a German laboratory and packaged on French soil, as an example of the strength of Franco-German collaboration.

In his closing speech, Macron said that next Sunday’s election was also a plea “for or against the EU, for or against Franco-German relations”.

A win for Macron would be very much a win for pro-EU politics in general and would undoubtedly see a continuation of the Franco-German power couple in Europe. 

  • United stance on Russia

Announcing a wave of sanctions against Russia after its brutal invasion of Ukraine, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “If Putin was seeking to divide the European Union, to weaken NATO, and to break the international community, he has achieved exactly the opposite. We are more united than ever and we will stand up in this war, it is for sure that we will overcome and we will prevail. We are united and we stay united.”

French president Emmanuel Macron speaks at a NATO summit

French president Emmanuel Macron speaks at a NATO summit in Brussels. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Thibault Camus

If Macron wins a second election in France, the signs are that this will continue to be true. France has so far been in favour of tough economic sanctions against Putin and his oligarch network, as well as the delivery of weapons to support Ukraine’s fight against its aggressor. Macron has also long been in favour of establishing a European army, and the war in Russia appears to have shored up his ambitions for common defence policies across the bloc.

“We can no longer depend on others to feed us, care for us, inform us, finance us,” Macron said in a speech in March. “We cannot depend on others to defend us, whether on land, at sea, under the sea, in the air, in space or in cyberspace. In this respect, our European defence must take a new step forward.”

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: Just how quickly could Germany wean itself off Russian gas?

And what would a Le Pen victory mean for Germany?

  • Tense Franco-German relations

A win for the Le Pen would mark a sea change after years of close collaboration between France and Germany, and indeed within Europe. “She hates Germany,” was the blunt assessment of French political scientist Henri Ménudier on Deutschlandfunk this week.

According to Ménudier, Le Pen is furious at what she sees as Germany’s overly dominant political and economic role within the EU. In Wednesday’s TV debate, she fumed over the fact that German cars were, in her view, given preference over French ones. “The Germans are putting their foot down hard,” she said.

Most notably, the far-right politician has next to no political allies or links in Germany, aside from the anti-migrant AfD. In one of her first speeches on foreign policy in the election campaign, she said she wanted to end the “French blindness towards Berlin” that had existed during the Merkel and Macron years. 

  • Breakdown of the EU?

According to some experts, a win for Le Pen could be the start of the disintegration of the European project. Though the right-winger has said she doesn’t intend to take France out of the European Union, some believe her plans for fundamental EU reform could amount to a Frexit-by-stealth. 

Le Pen wants to drastically reduce the amount of money France sends to Brussels – a policy which is bound to put her on a collision course with both the EU Commission and Germany. She has also said that French law should take precedence over EU law to free the country from the “straightjacket of Brussels”. She wants to erect hard borders around France and end the free movement of people, goods and services. 

Ursula von der Leyen

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen addresses the European parliament. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/BELGA | Jonas Roosens

Rather than the political and economic alliance of the EU, Le Pen believes there should be a “Europe of nations” where each country acts by itself and relies on individual partnerships between countries. She is believed to see the Hungarian authoritarian leader Victor Orban in a particularly positive light. 

Describing the threat of a Le Pen victory to the EU, former German president Joschka Fischer described it as a “mega distaster”.

“The prospect of one of the EU’s founding pillars pursuing an “empty chair” policy in Brussels for the next five years would mean five years of blockage,” he wrote in an analysis for Project Syndicate. “There would be no common security policy, no transformation of the EU into a geopolitical actor, no further enlargement, and no deeper integration. And that would be the best-case scenario under a President Le Pen.”

  • No collaboration on Russia 

The support of Putin for far-right parties like the Rassemblement National and the fact that Le Pen has received direct campaign funding from Russia-based banks has raised some serious question marks about her stance on Russia.

Though Le Pen has condemned the invasion of Ukraine, it’s hard to see how this would translate into practical support after she takes power. So far, she has rejected sanctions on Russia, arguing that they would only hurt the French people and economy. 

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in 2017. Photo: picture alliance / Mikhail Klimentyev/POOL SPUTNIK KREMLIN/AP/dpa | Mikhail Klimentyev

She also wants to end joint military projects between Germany and France such as the development of new fighter jets and tanks. She claims that there are “irreconcilable strategic differences” in the countries’ aims and had pledged to replace these with France’s own projects. In addition, she would block Germany’s application for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Perhaps most worryingly at a time of war, France – the strongest military power in the EU – could withdraw from NATO if Le Pen takes power. France is then likely to move closer to the Kremlin, ultimately standing alone in western Europe.

READ ALSO:

At a time when Germany’s traffic-light coalition is trying to bring about a major transition to renewable energy, a Le Pen win would bring about a huge U-turn on French climate policies. 

The far-right politician would not only prevent the development of wind and solar power in the future, but has also pledged to destroy the green infrastructure that has already been built. She would also end subsidies for the renewable energy sector.

From what Le Pen has said in the past months, Germany and France would be likely to butt heads over energy policy in the future – particularly with regard to France’s reliance on nuclear power. 

“I will not allow Germany to destroy the French nuclear industry,” Le Pen has said. Instead, she’s keen to convince the Germans of the French model, which would be primarily based on nuclear power and hydrogen.

Wind farm in Lower Saxony

A wind farm in Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

Does Germany have a stance on the election?

Yes. In a comment piece written for French newspaper Le Monde alongside the leaders of Spain and Portugal, Chancellor Olaf Scholz called on the French electorate to choose Macron on Sunday.

The vote is “for us not an election like others,” the three European leaders wrote. “France faces a choice between a democratic candidate… and a candidate of the extreme right who openly joins ranks with those who attack our liberty and democracy.”

READ ALSO: Leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal urge French to vote for Macron

Pointing to Le Pen’s links to the Kremlin and her acceptance of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the politicians urged French people to help France remain a “beacon of democracy.”

“We should not forget (what Le Pen has done),” they wrote. “Even if these politicians now try to take their distance from the Russian aggressor.”

For in-depth coverage of the French elections and live results on Sunday, visit our sister site The Local France.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).

READ ALSO:

What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October. 

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