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A choice between two kinds of France

New Zealand will be counting on France's new president, whether Macron or Le Pen, to maintain the European Union's engagement with the Pacific

Few elections in French history carry as much weight as the vote that takes place on Sunday, pitching the youthful centrist Emmanuel Macron against wily far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the final battle for the country’s presidency.

The outcome will shape France’s political landscape, helping to determine the fate of a nearly six-decade-old constitutional system. For the European Union, the vote will establish whether the world’s biggest trade bloc can survive the forces of nationalism and populism pounding at its walls.

The high stakes are being followed closely in New Zealand, which is fretting over US commitments to multilateralism and security in the Pacific. New Zealand is expanding security cooperation with France in the Pacific and will be counting on France to maintain the EU's future engagement with the Pacific.

Macron and Le Pen are competing for what is arguably the most powerful job in the world - France’s president can unleash nuclear strikes, dissolve parliament and call a referendum, directs the country’s defence and foreign policy and appoints the prime minister.

The final debate between the pair was immediately panned by critics. The French like their presidents to behave like presidents before they are elected to the office.

Instead, the debate showed Le Pen's confrontational style is more suited to the hustings while Macron's professorial attention to detail is more at home in a structured debate setting.

Whoever wins will inherit a nation burdened by anaemic growth, high unemployment and worries about social cohesion.

Hampered by a quarter-century of half-hearted reforms, France has a jobless rate of 10 percent, reaching to nearly 25 percent among the young. The country is under a state of emergency after attacks by home-grown jihadists that have claimed 238 lives since January 2015, and there is anxious debate about the integration of the country’s four million Moslems.

The mood in the election campaign has been marked by bitterness and an aching desire for change.

The first round on April 23 saw Macron -- a 39-year-old political novice and former investment banker who was briefly economy minister – come in first with 24 percent of the vote.

Joining him in the runoff is Le Pen, 48, who took over the National Front (FN) six years ago from her father Jean-Marie, an 88-year-old bruiser who founded the party in 1972. She won 21 percent of the vote.

Their breakthrough came at the crushing of the Socialist Party and the Republicans, which have dominated French politics since 1981 but are now tarred as incompetent, blighted by scandal and riddled by infighting.

Drawing on the resentment of the poor and unemployed, a far-left party led by Socialist renegade Jean-Luc Mélenchon garnered 19 percent of the vote – a reminder of the street radicalism that has thwarted economic reform for decades.

Macron, who is married to his former high school teacher, Brigitte, 25 years his senior, has stunned many with an optimistic start-up-style campaign driven by an army of enthusiastic young people. His movement, En Marche!, founded in April 2015, now claims more than a quarter of a million members.

He is pushing a pro-business agenda that would reduce corporate taxes and slim the civil service but maintain France’s lavish welfare system and support for the EU.

Despite his newness to politics, his appeal for openness and the EU resonates with many in the French middle class and business community.

Le Pen is calling for curbs on immigration, retirement at the age of 60, replacing the euro with the French franc and for the EU to return to a loose coalition where all national frontier controls would be restored.

Since taking the FN’s helm, Le Pen has laboured, but with only partial success, to rework its image into a “France-first” party cleansed of the taint of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

Despite warnings that her programme would destroy France’s economy and divide society, Le Pen has a groundswell of support in the northern rustbelt and high-immigration regions of the Mediterranean, drawing on a well of suspicion towards the Paris elite, globalisation and foreigners.

The smart money for Sunday is on a win by Macron. Under this scenario, he would romp home as mainstream voters rally to calls to block Le Pen – a tactic that worked in 2002 when her father made it to the runoff only to be routed 82-18% by Jacques Chirac.

“We have no choice, we have to stop Le Pen. The spectre of neo-fascism is still there,” said Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far-right at the Fondation Jean-Jaures, a leftwing advocacy group.

“This is the choice between two different kinds of France. That’s what’s at stake.”

But much has changed in the past 15 years. Marine Le Pen has made some headway in sanitising the party and wooing conservatives by pounding away on security and Islam. On the far left, which reluctantly supported Chirac in 2002, there is no backing for Macron from Mélenchon, who vilifies his banker past.

Discount the fear and shock factors that prevailed in 2002, add in a holiday weekend, the prospect of poor weather, low turnout or voters who cast a blank ballot, and Macron’s majority could badly erode.

Such trends could even in theory lead to a Le Pen victory – an outcome that would wreck confidence in the euro and the future of the EU itself.

If Macron gets a big majority of, say, at least 65 percent of the vote, this will be perceived as a sign that populism in Europe has reached its high-water mark.

It will also boost his chances for the next big task – winning enough seats for his fledgling movement in legislative elections next month so that it can forge a governing coalition.

For Le Pen, a heavy defeat would demonstrate that she failed to make the grade even when every political, economic and social wind was in her favour. It could open the way for her to be toppled by FN purists, notably her popular 27-year-old niece Marion.

But if Macron wins by far less, these assumptions will evaporate. He would be cast as weak and unable to command a governing majority. Le Pen would lurk in the background, ready to exploit every failure. The scenario would strengthen those who say that the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958, has run its course and a new constitution without a strong, paternalistic president is needed.

“This is an election that has shaken everything up,” said Pascal Perrineau, a professor at the elite Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) school in Paris. “It’s a real break with the past.”

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