Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate in the French presidential election, advocates a halt to all legal immigration.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a pro-immigration former socialist running on the far left, supports lowering France’s retirement age and raising the minimum wage.
But these two candidates have a united cause—upending European unity.
Indeed, both say they might take France out of the European Union and the euro currency.
“Sometimes, the extremes meet, and in this case, the extreme left and right are meeting with an anti-EU agenda,” Michael Leigh, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States who focuses on the European Union, said in an interview with The Daily Signal.
Le Pen, of the Front National party, and Mélenchon, of La France Insoumise, are two candidates of what is considered a four-way race for the French presidency.
The first round of the elections Sunday will set the stage for two finalists to face off in the second round May 7.
A centrist, Emmanuel Macron, currently leads in the polls. He and the fourth contender, the center-right François Fillon, both are campaigning for keeping the EU together.
Yet experts say the success of Le Pen and Mélenchon, who pitch themselves as looking out for French workers at a time when the nation’s economy is sluggish, spotlights the continued vulnerability of the EU.
The EU has become a frequent target of disaffected Europeans across the continent, who are anxious over jobs, immigration, and globalization.
Last June, Britain became the first country to decide to leave the 28-member EU, in a referendum result known as Brexit.
“This is as important as Brexit,” James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey who also has held diplomatic posts in Europe, said in an interview with The Daily Signal.
“In France, we have America’s primary global ally, which has a larger [gross domestic product] and more people than Britain, floundering in almost every way,” Jeffrey said, adding:
This floundering has almost gotten—not critical—but frankly, terminal. So if on top of Brexit you get either Le Pen being elected or a runoff between her and a far-left candidate [Mélenchon] whose prescription for France’s future seems like [Hugo] Chávez in Venezuela, the European project as we know it will no longer exist.
Despite their ideological differences, Le Pen and Mélenchon share other common positions. They both want France to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, better known as NATO, the political-military alliance comprised of the U.S. and mostly European countries.
And both favor versions of economic protectionism.
Yet Leigh says Le Pen and Mélenchon seem to be coming at their anti-Europe positions from a different place. Whereas Le Pen describes the EU as threatening France’s sovereignty and national identity, Leigh says, Mélenchon views the bloc as a globalist power that has benefited the rich over the poor:
For Le Pen, her anti-EU position was for a long time a part of detoxifying her brand, which had begun very much rooted in anti-immigration and Islamophobia. Her anti-EU position is a way to appeal to center-right voters, because this is a legitimate issue where she could take such a position whereas the core issues of her party are not acceptable to many in the center-right.
“Mélenchon is anti-EU for different reasons,” Leigh added. “He has a very extreme, left-wing position. He is opposed to globalization and thinks it’s only benefiting large companies and banks. He thinks ordinary French don’t benefit from the EU.”
Jeffrey says the populist strands of the French electorate are responding to two primary issues.
France has not fully recovered from the financial crisis, with the country facing 10 percent unemployment and nearly a quarter of young workers without jobs.
In addition, at a time when France is under a “state of emergency” following recent terrorist attacks, a backlash has arisen against multiculturalism, and particularly, Islam, the country’s largest religious minority.
If these issues propel Le Pen or Mélenchon into power, and they move to pull France from the EU, Jeffrey and Leigh agree, the impact would be great.
“France and Germany have been the motor of the EU and the motivation for it,” Jeffrey told The Daily Signal. “It’s a French design. France is the glue that holds together an economically very troubled south in Europe and an economically very successful north. If France is crippled, there is no EU.”
Leigh predicts that France’s leaving the EU is unlikely, but he is equally dramatic about what it would mean.
“Without France, the EU would be reduced to a cluster of countries around Germany,” Leigh said. “The French-German relationship has been at the heart of the EU for decades. It would be the end of the EU.”