European Union

Why the French elections will change the face of Europe

The result of the upcoming French election will either force the EU to take a giant step backwards or rejuvenate it.

Today, not even a third of the French electorate is likely to vote for either the Socialist or the Republican parties, writes Piet [Eric Gaillard/Reuters]

In less than two months, French people will elect their new president. This vote will be one of three elections scheduled for this year in Western Europe - after the Dutch and before the German ballot - which will shape the future of the European Union.

All three countries were among the six nations that founded the European Coal and Steel Community - the ancestor of today's EU - almost 70 years ago. The results in each country will fundamentally affect the course of a European integration project that, for the first time in its history, successfully avoided wars and conflicts in the old continent for decades.

In the Netherlands, the plenitude of political parties should help liberal Mark Rutte to remain prime minister and lead a large coalition.

In Germany, the results are expected to be tight but one of the two main parties - Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) or Martin Schulz's Social Democratic Party (SPD) - will win as no other party is likely to get more than 10 percent of the votes according to the latest polls.

In France, however, the outcome is more uncertain than ever as all five candidates made controversial remarks and have doubtful policy promises to win the presidency.

Yet, despite the uncertainty, it is already clear that the French presidential election will have significant consequences beyond the French borders.

Eurosceptic candidates

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In regards to European policies, none of the five leading candidates had voted in favour of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which officially created the EU and paved the way for the bloc to move beyond its earlier limited economic scope.

The communist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen are both from parties that oppose the European integration and call for the so-called "Frexit".

However, while the Socialist and the Republican Parties' official line has always been to support European treaties, their supporters chose this time to nominate respectively Benoit Hamon and Francois Fillon - two men known for their antagonism towards Brussels' policies and their opposition to the Maastricht Treaty.

The final frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, did not vote in 1992 because of his young age. But, unlike other candidates, the 39-years-old always supported the European project, and his eventual victory would clearly trigger a boost in France's engagement in European politics.

Macron constantly breaks with traditional political codes and processes, creating his own political movement and refusing to present himself within the simplistic left/right political spectrum.

Ousting the mainstream

The emergence of Macron, together with the steady rise of Le Pen's National Front, have relegated the mainstream parties to the level of mere outsiders.

Since World War II, French presidents have always come from either the Socialist or the Republican parties.

The decline has been steady ever since. Former Presidents Francois Mitterrand or Jacques Chirac stayed in power for more than a decade.

Their successors were not able to go beyond their first term. Nicolas Sarkozy did not manage to get re-elected after his first term and Francois Hollande's popularity beat record low levels that forced him to throw in the towel without even running for re-election. Today, not even a third of the electorate is likely to vote for either of their parties.

This will have a strong impact on the European parliament whose French members usually come from these two main parties.

The victory of an outsider candidate as a driving force of European politics will provide legitimacy and the necessary political ground for third party candidates in other European countries.

If Le Pen wins the elections, it would clearly mean the end of the EU as we know it, as a Frexit vote would leave Germany as the only major global economic and political actor.

If Le Pen wins the elections, it would clearly mean the end of the EU as we know it, as a Frexit vote would leave Germany as the only major global economic and political actor. The EU would then be limited to a greater Germany, without any potential power to balance it out.

If Macron wins, the outcome would be far more positive for a EU that could count on a young political figure who is able to bridge the two sides of traditional politics.

Macron's unique brand of social liberalism, resulting from the combination of his political upbringing within the Socialist Party and his professional background as a corporate banker, breaks with the dusty technocratic image of grey-haired European politicians driven by party ideology.

On many levels, Macron could be considered a younger version of former President of the European Commission Jacques Delors, whose economic expertise and capacity to work with politicians of all sides was paramount to the success of the EU.

'A precedent for transparency'

WATCH: France election - Fillon vows to fight on at Paris rally (2:44)

Finally, the French election this year will set a precedent in regards to transparency and rejection of embezzlement and double standards.

Traditionally, Northern European countries were described as the standard setters to be followed with the strength of their political institutions and transparent politics. Southern European countries instead were looked down upon by their neighbours because of their chronic nepotism and corruption scandals.

France was no different. Chirac and Sarkozy have been indicted for a series of shady decisions. Mitterrand was known for his use of public funds to hide his extramarital daughter. Yet, French people mostly turned a blind eye to these until today.

The current presidential campaign has demonstrated that these types of behaviour are no longer acceptable to the French people.

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The disqualification of Sarkozy and Alain Juppe in the first round of their party's primaries, the under-pressure Fillon after the revelation of "fake jobs" scandal, as well as the relative decline of Le Pen after she refused to answer to the French justice are all proof that political privileges are not tolerated any more.

The current presidential campaign is, therefore, deeply changing French politics and will have important consequences throughout the continent.

It will probably bring an end to a two-party system that has taken the political milieu hostage within a sterile confrontation.

Systematic change

Current frontrunners, both Macron and Le Pen, are likely to bring a systemic change to European politics in diametrically opposed directions.

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If the Brexit made the EU teeter, it should be remembered that the United Kingdom was not a founding member of the organisation and has never enjoyed the political influence that France has.

In two months, the EU will either take a giant step backwards or be re-energised and rejuvenated.

Remi Piet is a research associate on political economy and foreign policy at the Florida International University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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