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French election: where the candidates stand on foreign policy

French voters go to the polls for the first round of election on April 23. Ian Langsdon/EPA

The first round of the French presidential elections will take place on April 23. Foreign policy has traditionally played a central role during presidential campaigns, but this has not been the case this time around. This can partly be explained by the unusually high number of candidates (11 in total), the fact that what matters to the French today seems limited to what is happening within France, and the focus of the journalists on domestic issues.

So, what can be expected in terms of foreign policy from the four leading candidates from the extreme left to extreme right: Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Emmanuel Macron, François Fillon, and Marine Le Pen?

The European Union

Europe has been one of the most debated foreign policy issues during this election campaign. A win for Macron, the centrist independent representing his En Marche! movement, would please europhiles, since he is by far the most pro-European candidate. As well as expressing his support for the survival of the EU, he even wants to expand its capacity. For instance, he proposes to further develop Europe’s defence capability by creating a European security council. It would be composed of “military, diplomats, and intelligence experts” and would advise the key European decision makers on defence related issues.

Mélenchon from the far-left France Insoumise party, and Le Pen of the Front National are both highly eurosceptic. Mélenchon wants to dramatically renegotiate the terms of the union and to leave if that process fails. Le Pen wants to take France out of the eurozone and to propose a referendum on a full “Frexit”.

Fillon, from the right wing Les Républicains is not as pro-Europe as Macron but remains committed to the regional organisation. However, he wants reforms to take place in order to address some of the perceived weaknesses of the EU, in particular in terms of security and the governance of the eurozone.

Syria (and Russia)

Apart from Le Pen, who does not explicitly mention Syria in her manifesto, the other three candidates have argued that France needs to be actively involved in resolving the conflict. But they take different views of what should happen to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

Mélenchon’s position is not clear while Fillon’s has shifted: he used to tolerate Assad because the priority was to eradicate terrorism and the Syrian leader was seen as a tool to achieve this goal. In his programme, Fillon suggested that anyone fighting so-called Islamic State (IS), including – if necessary – the current regime, would be an ally of France in Syria. However, Fillon’s reaction to the regime’s recent chemical attack against civilians appears to suggest that this is no longer the case. In an interview after the attack, he declared that he wanted to talk with the Russians and others in order to begin organising a political transition to put an end to the massacres.

Since the beginning of the conflict, Le Pen has supported the idea that Assad is “the only viable solution” to the situation in Syria. She condemned the chemical attack, but refused to blame Assad until a full international investigation could take place. She also criticised US president, Donald Trump, for authorising airstrikes before such an investigation could occur.

Macron adopts the middle ground. He doesn’t see Assad as being part of the future of Syria but is willing to work with him temporarily. This can be explained by the fact that his priority is to fight IS, but also because in his view, the “Assad must go” approach has put the UN Security Council in a state of stalemate for too long. Even though he has consistently criticised the Syrian leader and has expressed his will to see him referred to the International Criminal Court, he also explained after the chemical attack that not all objectives could be achieved at once, therefore suggesting that Assad was here to stay in the immediate future.

The candidates also disagree on what Russia’s role should be in Syria. Mélenchon, Fillon and Le Pen all promote a central role for Russia and have even suggested that the EU sanctions established after the conflict in Ukraine should be lifted. Le Pen also undertook a very controversial visit to Russia to meet with Putin in March 2017, showing her ties with the Russian leader.

Le Pen on a visit to meet Vladmir Putin in Moscow in March 2017. Michael Klimenty/Sputnik/Kremel

Macron deplores what he refers to as his adversaries’ fascination with Putin. He believes the Russian president is key to the conflict resolution, but also wants Russia to face its responsibilities, in particular when it comes to pressuring the Syrian regime to put an end to the massacres.

Security and migration

The fight against terrorism remains a priority for all the candidates. In light of the recent attacks on French soil and neighbouring countries, this is a major concern for the French population. The main candidates have expressed their willingness to cooperate with any regime that is willing to take part in this fight (even, in some cases, controversial ones like Assad’s).

However, terrorism has mainly been discussed in terms of its domestic implications. Le Pen and Fillon want to strip people who hold dual nationality and are convicted of terrorism of their French nationality – an idea first mooted by the current government. They would also expel any nationals who have gone abroad to fight for terrorist organisations.

Mélenchon sees such an approach as “shameful”. He suggests alternative options, such as the withdrawal of some civil rights (such as voting). Macron seems more indecisive and appears to suggest that it could be an option for people holding double nationality, but only in extreme cases.

Extra controls on the France-Belgium border in spring 2016. Yoan Valat/EPA

Tied to this issue is the question of what to do about French national borders. As part of the Schengen area, there are no checks at the borders with European countries – a practice called into question every time a terrorist attack occurs on French soil.

Le Pen and Mélenchon both want to leave Schengen – although their reasons are not strictly limited to security concerns but are also linked to their vision of an independent and free France.

Macron though wants France to remain within Schengen, but suggests a reinforcement of FRONTEX (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency). Fillon goes a step further by arguing that although France needs to remain part of the shared space, the Schengen agreements need to be reformed in order to allow additional measures – such as targeted controls in areas which refugees and immigrants are known to use.

Even though foreign policy has been forgotten during this campaign, its implications will be major, not only for France, but for the rest of Europe and the international community. As such, it should hopefully – although, unlikely – play a more predominant role in the last few days of campaigning and during the two-week wait for the second round of voting for the two leading candidates on May 7.

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