Europe emerges as major battlefront in French election

Emmanuel Macron's campaign rally in Lyon on 4 February. [enmarchefr/Instagram]

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the two front-runners in the French presidential race, both chose Lyon to officially launch their presidential campaigns at the weekend (4 February). Europe emerged as the central issue in the race to the Elysée Palace. EURACTIV France reports.

National Front leader Le Pen fired the starting gun on her presidential campaign at her party’s “presidential foundations” event.

The extreme-right leader used the occasion to present her “realistic plan” for France, which includes the National Front’s traditional positions on immigration and Europe, to an audience of some 5,000 people, according to the party.

All the polls are currently singling out Le Pen as the victor of the first round of the presidential election, to be held on 23 April.

With her popularity at around 25%, the National Front leader has a comfortable lead on her competitors, including former economy minister Macron, embattled Republican candidate François Fillon, whose popularity is in free-fall since the “Penelope-gate” revelations, and Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party’s candidate and rank outsider.

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Favourite in the first round, Le Pen will play the role of challenger in the second. She is not expected to come close to the absolute majority needed to win the run-off election on 7 May, as supporters of the traditional parties will likely parties band together to keep her out.

Anti-European programme

In her Lyon speech, Le Pen presented her 144-point programme, which includes the renegotiation of the EU treaties followed by a referendum on France’s membership of the bloc. This renegotiation will focus on “repatriating” four “sovereignties”: monetary, legislative, territorial and economic.

The territorial question is part of a separate proposal to leave the Schengen area and “re-establish the national borders”.

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But the programme’s strategy for leaving the single currency was vague. The only clue to any such plan, which has always been part on the extreme-right party’s DNA, came under the heading of restoring monetary sovereignty.

The programme presented in Lyon also took aim at other European policies, like the free movement of workers and the posted workers directive, promising instead the creation of a tax on companies that hire foreign workers. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, of which France is the main beneficiary, would also be torn apart and replaced with “French agricultural policy”.

To fund this programme, the National Front says it can save around €20 billion per year by stopping its contributions to the EU budget.

Macron’s pro-European programme

While Le Pen was unveiling her anti-European programme, across town Macron was doing quite the opposite. The founder of the “En Marche !” movement and President François Hollande’s former economy minister defended a resolutely pro-European programme at his Lyon gathering.

The former investment banker also appeared to have won the weekend’s popularity contest, assembling 16,000 supporters, according to his team.

In a speech lasting more than an hour and a half, the candidate was vocal in his support for the European project.

Though he did not offer any new ideas about France’s relationship with Europe, Macron took care not to attack the EU, saying he would respect the Schengen area and the Maastricht Treaty, which have often been scapegoated by other politicians.

Hologram meeting

A third campaign was launched in Lyon at the weekend: that of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The MEP used hologram technology to hold a simultaneous rally in Paris.

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