Seen from abroad, coverage of the French presidential elections seems to be squarely focused on how anti-European Union (EU) the French population has become, owing to the fact that about 45% of the electorate voted for candidates who propose to leave the EU in one way or another. This in an undeniable fact.
Another indisputable fact is that an overwhelming majority of these votes were not cast on an anti- or pro-EU basis, whether on the pro side with Emmanuel Macron or Benoît Hamon, or the anti side represented by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Thinking otherwise ignores the fact that the campaign has been focused on two issues: whether the French people believe that Fillon and Le Pen are fit to be president despite their misgivings with the justice system—in short, a referendum about themselves—and jobs, jobs, jobs.
It is understandable that our European friends would look at the issue—the EU—on which our race has an impact, when otherwise more relevant social trends that may apply to them in the future get lost in the shuffle. It is understandable that (some) European capitals breathed a sigh of relief last Sunday when it seemed that Macron would come out on top, carrying a positive message about the EU and his supporters waving yellow-starred flags at his rallies.
But I have one thing to ask, my dear European friends. I know we French people ask for a lot. Some latitude on deficit rules, that you help us fight our wars, and to please be kind enough to protect all of our cheeses.
Please don’t make this election about the EU. Please give us a couple more months, until the end of the legislative elections, to deal with our own internal divisions, with our own deep societal divides and polarized electorate before we jump the gun and talk about Eurozone governance. Our domestic issues are what this election is about, and how to create a more prosperous France is the projects that voters have been choosing from.
Making the election about the EU would be a kiss of death that would only support the self-fulfilling prophets of doom that appeared after the British referendum and the Trump election. The French election has turned into a large-scale exercise in overcorrection and repentance for the experts caught by surprise by these two events. Look no further than overlord-of-all-polls Nate Silver (he of “but he got the popular vote right!” fame), who claimed before the first round that French polls were so consistent that there must be a mistake somewhere. When the polls proved to be spot on and even below the margin of error, it was clear that the French election had turned into nothing else but a large-scale projection of fear for Punditry, Inc.
Emmanuel Macron has little to win, at this point, from portraying himself as a pro-EU candidate when he is trying to contain the blows that Le Pen will send his way in the next 10 days. Don’t be fearful that Macron won’t engage in the large-scale pedagogical exercise on the EU that you wish he did: his objective is to highlight how France can benefit from the EU, and how the EU can create the conditions for France to be more competitive vis-à-vis Germany but also the other countries where companies such as Whirlpool, which both candidates visited this week, move their production lines to. Macron said clearly, yesterday, that he is “with” Berlin rather than being “against” Germany. His strategy is to convince the French population that a harmonious relationship with Berlin will deliver many more benefits than being on the warpath, a platform François Hollande was elected on in 2012.
Do not be dismayed if the portrayal of the EU in our campaign is negative: Marine Le Pen, like other demagogues before her, and surely more after her, uses the EU to create the societal divisions that are her only chance to win a national race. With her botched-up plan to leave the Eurozone having received less support than Trump’s chocolate cake, she is bound to resort to wide-scale scare tactics about the EU, which Macron simply cannot give any credence to if he is to focus on how he intends to restore growth and confidence to the French population. Le Pen will criticize the EU because it is her only option to jointly address both the Fillon and Mélenchon voters, which she would otherwise lose if she talked too much about her economic plans for the former, and social and identity issues for the latter.
If you read this, dear European friends, do not fight back. I know it is hard but believe me: it is harder for me. Fighting back would only reinforce Marine Le Pen’s perception that Emmanuel Macron is the candidate of the oligarchy, of the press, of the banking sector; the very perception that manages to attract a small part of the Mélenchon voters and that can only be pushed back on if the EU is able to prove its value to its citizens.
So, dear European friends: please give us a few more weeks to get through our navel-gazing period. Please do not insist too heavily on how this race will determine the future of Europe (you know that ended in 2005). Please keep your sighs of relief to yourself for a bit longer. Both France and the EU will be grateful for it. By the time we are done, I am sure we will have a couple more cheeses to protect.
(By the way: the election is not about Russia, either.)