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France's place in Europe at issue in vote for president

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France voted on Sunday in the first round of a bitterly fought presidential election that could define the future of the European Union, and is sure to be seen as a gauge of the anti-establishment anger that has brought upsets in Western politics.

[PARIS] France voted on Sunday in the first round of a bitterly fought presidential election that could define the future of the European Union, and is sure to be seen as a gauge of the anti-establishment anger that has brought upsets in Western politics.

Over 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers backed by rapid response units patrolled streets three days after a suspected Islamist gunman shot dead a policeman and wounded two others in the heart of the capital, Paris.

Voters will decide whether to back a pro-EU centrist newcomer, a scandal-ridden veteran conservative who wants to slash public expenditure, a far-left eurosceptic admirer of Fidel Castro, or a far-right nationalist who, as France's first woman president, would shut borders and ditch the euro.

The outcome will show whether the populist tide that saw Britain vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump elected president of the United States is still rising, or starting to ebb.

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But it also provides a choice between radically different recipes for reviving a listless economy that lags its neighbours, and where almost a quarter of under-25s have no job.

Emmanuel Macron, 39, a centrist ex-banker who set up his party just a year ago, is the opinion polls' favourite to win the first round and then beat far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the two-person runoff on May 7.

If they come first and second on Sunday, it would virtually reinvent a political landscape dominated for 60 years by mainstream groupings from the centre-left and centre-right. "It wouldn't be the classic left-versus-right divide but two views of the world clashing," said Ifop pollsters' Jerome Fourquet. "Macron bills himself as the progressive versus conservatives, Le Pen as the patriot versus the globalists." While Macron offers a vision of gradual economic deregulation that would cause few ripples on global financial markets, Le Pen proposes a more disruptive programme of higher social spending, financed by money-printing, coupled with a withdrawal from the euro and possibly the EU.

Of the two other candidates close enough in opinion polls to be in with a good chance of making the runoff, Jean-Luc Melenchon offers a far-left tax-and-spend platform that has much in common with Le Pen's, although without her plans to restrict immigration.

And conservative Francois Fillon, rebounding after being plagued for months by a fake jobs scandal, promises economic shock therapy of deregulation and slashing taxes and state spending, cutting half a million state sector jobs.

The seven other candidates, including the ruling Socialist party's Benoit Hamon, lag far behind.

REUTERS

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