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Deep Relationship: Why Sunday's French Election Is Important To Australia

For most French Australians the very idea of President Le Pen is antithetical to our notions of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’.

05/05/2017 11:03 AM AEST | Updated 05/05/2017 11:03 AM AEST
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"Just last year the Australian Government signed a $50bn contract with DCNS, the French state-owned shipbuilder, to build 12 submarines in South Australia. This project alone will tie our countries together for decades to come."

The French people have an important decision to make on May 7 and the world is watching and waiting. Will France continue the trend of nations reaching to the Right for solutions? Or will the home of modern republicanism do the opposite?

Will the French people elect right-wing, anti-Semitic, nationalist, Front National leader Marine Le Pen? A kind of less orange, better groomed, equally dangerous La Femme Donald. She's appealing to those rust-belt voters who are fearful of technological change, distrust of the European Union and are anti-Islam.

Or will the emerging light on the hill, Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old former Finance Minister under Socialist President François Hollande, running as an independent candidate, leading a political movement 'En Marche' become President?

Having recently returned from a week in my family home town of Annecy, a beautiful place dominated by a pristine lake and towering mountains about 40km from Geneva, better known as the Venice of the Alps, the mood is uncertain and divided.

It's worth pointing out that, in 2012, Le Pen won just one department. During the first round of voting she won over 50. The rust-belt voters have clearly deserted the Socialist Party. From Calais all the way across to Strasbourg, through Mâcon in the centre and most of the South of France voted for Le Pen. Meanwhile from Paris down to the Pyrenees, including Bordeaux, Macron was the victor.

It's almost as if France is divided in two.

France's two-round voting system has made it difficult for the Front National to translate votes into power. We saw this in 2002 when Jacque Chirac overwhelmingly defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen. Since the first round most of the Presidential candidates have come out to endorse Macron, with the exception of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who appealed to urban, young, progressive lefties.

On Sunday I expect history to repeat itself and Macron to defeat Le Pen, becoming the youngest President since Napoleon III. His challenge will be who he selects as Prime Minister and how his movement goes in the parliamentary elections in June. A coalition of sorts is very likely.

Back in Australia, French citizens turned up in droves to case their vote in the first round. The lines at the Lycée Condorcet in Maroubra snaked around the school, some waited two hours to hear those words "a voté".

Almost 50 percent of enrolled French did their civic duty, an increase of 32 percent on the 2012 election. In total 7488 French cast there vote, some 43 percent for Macron, while just 8 percent voted for Le Pen. This was a common trend throughout the world for French citizens living abroad.

This election is important to Australia because our bilateral relations run deep.

Close to 100,000 French visit our shores every year. It is the fourth-largest source of international students from Europe studying here. Approximately 25,000 young French citizens visited Australia under the Working Holiday Maker Agreement in 2014.

Just last year the Australian Government signed a $50bn contract with DCNS, the French state-owned shipbuilder, to build 12 submarines in South Australia. This project alone will tie our countries together for decades to come.

So it's important we understand whether the rise of anti-establishment, populist and nationalist agendas delivered by Brexit and Donald Trump will impact Europe's second-largest economy.

For most French Australians the very idea of President Le Pen is antithetical to our very notions of France, the home of the Enlightenment and 'liberté, égalité, fraternité'.

To think that French history could be hijacked the way American history has now been alarms us all. And what would this mean to our bilateral relationship with France under President Le Pen? Will the submarines even be built in Australia, or will Le Pen insist they keep the jobs in France?

But Macron, over all others, represents hope -- hope that progressive politics can adapt to this new political environment.

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Macron is the disruptor to establishment politics. He's never been elected before, unlike the other candidates. Let's not kid ourselves about Le Pen, she is establishment politics par excellence! And so Macron represents something fresh, something brash, and he's arrived.

While he might be branding himself as anti-establishment, he's also pushing policies that go against Le Pen and those that we saw in Brexit and Trump. Macron is actively pushing for France to have deeper European integration, something that sets him apart from the other candidates.

Macron see's this election as his great opportunity. He's the disruptor changing the French political landscape. The outcome is likely to see both Socialist Party and Les Républicains go into meltdown. Macron is positioning himself as the centrist that will sweep up voters from both sides. His cabinet is likely to include a mix of establishment politicians from both sides along with everyday people.

He's a social liberal. He's progressive on social issues but wants to liberalise the French economy and industrial relations environment. Some Australian commentators who complain about our industrial relations system would have conniptions if they went to France. Nevertheless, economic and social reforms are long overdue in France.

But unlike Australia, where the words 'climate change' are followed by bellows of outrage and fear, the French people are embracing the job opportunities the renewable energy sector presents.

And so Macron is in the hunt.

For progressives, like Justin Trudeau in Canada, Macron represents a welcome positive agenda in these uncertain times. The problem is delivering on that expectation. Some certainty and hope would be welcome in our uncertain world. After all, it isn't just any French Presidential election, it's about maintaining those values of 'liberté, égalité, fraternité', for the French as much as for Australians.

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