After a highly fractured vote in the first round of the French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen, of the right-wing Front National party, will face off against Emmanuel Macron, leader of the centrist En Marche! movement in the second and final round today (Sunday). Polls open at 8am in metropolitan France.
Interpretations abound about what each candidate would mean for France: in one typical dichotomy, Le Pen represents the preservation of French values in the face of globalization and Europeanization, while Macron is said to be a sell-out, representative of France’s economic elite and a sure path toward the loss of French specificity and culture; in another, Le Pen represents regress and a closing off from the world, while Macron represents openness to a progressive and inevitable march toward globalization; alternately, for some leftists, many of whom voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who came in fourth, albeit within just 4% of Macron and Le Pen) or Benoît Hamon (who came in fifth), Le Pen represents a racist, nationalist brand of populism developed in reaction to—and made possible by—continuous neoliberal economic policies of the sort espoused by Macron.
This election has been especially wrapped up in the question of France’s national identity and its place in the world and has been cast as particularly decisive for world politics, with each candidate singing to the tune of a different discourse. For European Union member states, especially, the decision of the French electorate could have rather immediate, concrete repercussions given the candidates’ opposed views on membership in the union. Yet as regards Africa, many features of French policy on the continent are likely to remain the same, regardless of who wins. For example, given France’s long-standing counterterrorism efforts and the recent attacks there, the French military presence in Africa—which has its origins in the colonial project and which still operates in part from old colonial military bases—will undoubtedly remain strong. Interventions in Mali, Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast, Libya, and Djibouti have all been justified by the French government as counterterrorism efforts in the interest both of France and of these implicated countries. Whether or not one takes this justification to be true, France certainly has further unspoken interests in maintaining a presence there, such as access to natural resources, especially now that it finds itself in competition with China for influence in francophone Africa. As it stands, though, France remains the main trading partner for many of its former colonies. For Macron or Le Pen, the difficulty could come in increasing the French presence subtly enough so as not to invite accusations of neo-imperialism.
Despite the continuity of this long-standing national strategy in Africa, there would, of course, be differences between a Le Pen and a Macron presidency. A Le Pen presidency could be especially fraught with complications regarding the diaspora in France, where French citizens of African descent have been demonized throughout her campaign. For one, Le Pen has talked of forcing dual nationals to give up one passport unless the other nationality is a European one. This concession toward the notion of a culturally coherent Europe is a strange one considering the Front National leader has campaigned on a platform that includes leaving the E.U.; indeed, it seems to betray the purity of a nationalist ideology ostensibly based on a simple distinction between France and all other countries, instead further revealing that among all these other countries, the European ones are better than the others. This paradox suggests a racialization of nation-states that is nonetheless consistent with the xenophobia of her campaign rhetoric—and, indeed, consistent with the policies of European countries—which has made her immensely unpopular among French citizens of African descent (although many such citizens are likely to not vote). One common fear among these citizens is that a Le Pen presidency would embolden those sympathetic to her message to become more active in their racism.
Regardless of all this, Le Pen seems keen to maintain an active foreign policy with African countries, based on relationships of “non-interference, which doesn’t mean indifference.” It appears that Le Pen would try to pay lip service to isolationism and to national sovereignty—which serves her domestics interests—all the while preserving French involvement in the continent. If this is to pass, she might have to betray her anti-Europeanism once more given that previous French engagement in Africa has been endorsed and facilitated by the E.U. and the U.N. Towards the end of solidifying French activity in Africa during her potential presidency, Le Pen recently visited Chad and the headquarters of the French anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane, in N’Djamena.
The specific repercussions of a Macron presidency for Africa would not foreseeably give way to the theatrics that a Le Pen presidency could well do. Yet Emmanuel Macron is a staunch supporter of the European Union, whose policies have had damaging consequences on the African continent, through the Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, for example, which has flooded the African market with European produce and raised taxes on certain imports into Europe, effectively forcing many African vendors to abandon the market. In addition, the ongoing immigration of Africans to Europe across the Mediterranean has compelled European states to try to outsource their border security apparatuses to North Africa. By converting North Africa into a securitized buffer zone, Europe could push potential skirmishes and the poor treatment of immigrants southwards, thereby avoiding human rights scandals on its own soil and reinforcing the image of Africa as a site of perennial conflict to be fixed at the opportune moment. Despite the explicit racism and clear danger of Marine Le Pen’s discourse—and, hence, the relative appeal of Macron’s rejoinder discourse of tolerance for many Africans and French people of African descent—a Macron presidency and all the progressivism that the European Union seems to embody for his supporters would still allow difficulties to continue for many African countries. The real danger of a Macron victory is that, simply by virtue of not being Le Pen, his policies will be treated as reasonable.