As France goes to the polls to elect a new president, observers are wondering if the vote will follow a populist trend that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
Here are a few important things to know about the upcoming vote, as explained by Joshua Cole, an American scholar of European history.
1. How does the French presidential electoral process work?
Prospective candidates must gather 500 signatures of support from French elected officials and have their candidacy approved by the Constitutional Court. A presidential term is five years, and all citizens 18 years and older can vote. This year the first round of voting is on April 23. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, there will be a second-round runoff between the top two candidates on May 7.
2. Is president an important job in France?
The prime minister is the head of the French government, but the president outranks the prime minister and has important powers in national defense and foreign relations.
The president also chooses the prime minister from the majority party in parliament. Occasionally, the president is forced to choose a prime minister from a different party than his or her own. This is called “cohabitation.” This year, the legislative elections will be in two rounds on June 11 and 18.
3. Who are the most popular candidates for president?
Eleven candidates are running, with five seen as the main contenders. Two candidates are leading the polls: Marine Le Pen of the extreme right-wing National Front and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist and former economics minister, who is not associated with a traditional party.
Surprisingly, the candidates from the parties who have dominated presidential politics for almost 40 years – the Republicans and the Socialists – are seen as unlikely to make the second round. Republican François Fillon has been hobbled by scandal. Socialist Bénoit Hamon has found little traction among voters tired of the current socialist president, François Hollande.
A candidate from the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has seen his chances of making the second round improve in recent days.
4. France has been under a nationwide state of emergency since November of 2015. Is security a big issue?
Multiple terrorist attacks in 2015-2016 have made security more important than ever. Article 16 of the French Constitution gives the president the power to declare a state of emergency and then exercise executive and legislative powers simultaneously, ruling directly by decree. Given the likelihood of more terrorist attacks, this possibility has received a great deal of attention of late. A group of lawyers and jurists recently published a letter arguing that the Constitution gives too much power to the presidency and that electing Le Pen was a danger to French democracy.
5. During the 2012 election, some said then-President Nicolas Sarkozy was afraid to visit immigrant neighborhoods. How are these so-called “banlieues” playing into the election this time?
The banlieues are zones of economic and cultural exclusion, where problems of chronic unemployment are concentrated. Not all French Muslims (about 8 percent of the population) live in the banlieues, but some banlieues have large Muslim populations. Le Pen’s campaign painted the banlieues as zones of failed assimilation and a danger to France, blaming the residents for their own isolation.
6. What are the chances Le Pen will win?
Le Pen is popular among many young people, who seem not to be bothered by the National Front’s long association with racism and anti-Semitism. She is also supported by those who are opposed to European integration. Most polls say a second-round runoff between Le Pen and Macron is likely, and that Macron will win this match-up. With more than a third of the electorate saying they’re undecided on whom to vote for in the second round, the result may end up being much closer than predicted.
With important national elections scheduled this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany, European officials on edge about possible Russian interference are pursuing various measures to counter it.
Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic security agency, also warned of “growing evidence” of Russian attempts to influence Germany’s federal elections, set for September.
Alex Younger, the head of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, finds “profound” the risk to British sovereignty posed by the kind of state-directed fake news, propaganda, and other acts of subversion the Kremlin routinely engages in.
Russia has denied interference in the US or European elections, and calls such accusations examples of rampant “Russophobia” in the West.
Disinformation campaigns, or what are also sometimes called “active measures” in the “information space”, have become an increasingly important feature of Russian military doctrine.
The goal of these campaigns is to weaken and undermine support for the European Union, NATO, and public trust and confidence in democracy itself. And with the rise of anti-establishment, anti-EU politicians across Europe, Russia has found an increasingly receptive audience for such operations.
Russian propaganda campaigns date back to before the Cold War. But the sophistication and volume of these efforts are greater today than in the past. The internet has opened up new modes and opportunities for Russia to influence foreign elections — and new vulnerabilities for democratic societies, for which the free flow of information is a fundamental feature.
There is evidence, for example, that Russia played a role in several key national referenda across Europe last year: in April, when Dutch voters rejected an EU treaty with Ukraine that would have led to closer political and economic ties; in June, when British voters opted to leave the EU; and in December, when Italian voters rejected constitutional reforms championed by then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leading to his resignation.
The results of each of these votes served Russia’s broad interest in undermining EU cohesion.
Russian interference in Western elections can take various forms. Its operators may disseminate false or misleading news via blogs, websites, and social media or hack into computer networks and email accounts to steal and then leak compromising information against politicians seen to be anti-Russia (for example, Hillary Clinton). At the extreme, hackers may rig computer systems to manipulate election vote counts.
Russia’s disinformation campaigns also aim to instil doubt, confusion, and cynicism in the democratic process, erode public trust in institutions and in the news media — even to the point of eliminating the very idea of “a shared reality”. This foments populist anger and anxiety.
Thus disinformation campaigns and cyberespionage are for Russia attractive means to undermine Western governments and societies.
They’re also hard to track down and stop, offering Russia plausible deniability. Russian officials can operate covertly and through intermediaries, making it hard to find conclusive evidence directly implicating top Kremlin authorities.
It is often not clear if hackers are working with clear directions from Moscow or if they simply share sympathies with the Russian government and are acting independently.
A clear and present threat
Dutch authorities are so concerned about the possibility that its election could be manipulated that the interior minister announced that ballots will be counted by hand in the upcoming national election. Experts had warned that government computer systems were vulnerable to attack and disruption by state actors.
Likewise, the German government has advised of the possibility of a Russian cyberattack against the country’s federal elections. Russia is already suspected of hacking into the German Parliament’s computer network in 2015. German officials also suspect that Russia was behind a computer hack last November that resulted in 900,000 Germans temporarily losing internet and telephone service.
Putin has a powerful incentive to undermine German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been one of his most outspoken critics in Europe. She is also one of the strongest voices in favour of maintaining EU sanctions against Russia for its 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and its support for separatist rebels in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In France, Emmanuel Macron, who is running on a pro-EU platform ahead of French presidential elections in April and May, has accused Russian hackers of targeting him in an attempt to smear his candidacy. Richard Ferrand, the secretary-general of Macron’s En Marche party, has said that the campaign’s website and databases have been subject to “hundreds, if not thousands” of attacks from inside Russia.
An existential threat
Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, argues that Russian election interference and manipulation, if unchecked, could pose an “existential threat” to Western democracies.
European governments are taking various steps in response. They have tried to educate voters on how to identify fake news and have threatened retaliatory measures against Moscow if its subversive activities persist.
The EU has even created a team whose mission is to address “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns” by weeding out false or misleading online news.
Despite the various successes it can plausibly claim, election interference can also backfire on Russia. US intelligence agencies have traced the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computer systems back to the highest levels of the Kremlin and before leaving office in January, President Barack Obama imposed a range of sanctions and other retaliatory measures on Russia.
Such public hacking and disinformation campaigns have further damaged its relations with the West. Russia will now be the primary suspect for any electoral problems or irregularities in the future.
With Brexit negotiations, the rise of anti-EU and anti-establishment political parties, and the uncertainty surrounding the presidency of Donald Trump, Europe already faces a precarious moment. But since Russian disinformation campaigns target the very foundations of liberal democracy, they represent something perhaps even more sinister, threatening, and potentially destructive than Europe’s many other troubles.
The European Union endured a series of political shocks and strains in 2016 that threatened to tear the bloc apart: an ongoing migration crisis; the United Kingdom’s vote in June to exit the union; lackluster growth and stubbornly high unemployment in the euro zone; terrorist attacks that killed and injured scores; and surging support for populist and anti-EU political parties.
Against this recent history, there can be no doubt that 2017 will be one of the most important and fateful years in the EU’s six-decade history.
There are five acute dangers facing the EU in 2017. These are not isolated challenges. Instead, they are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. Addressing one of them would be a formidable test. That all five are happening simultaneously presents an unparalleled trial for European leaders.
The rise of the far-right
Voters in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and possibly Italy will vote in national elections in 2017. Populist, anti-EU parties are expected to perform strongly in all four contests.
France’s presidential election is likely to pit former prime ministerFrançois Fillon and nominee of the center-right Republicans against Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, in the second round of voting in May.
Marine Le Pen- Far Right leader in France-Wikipedia
Support for the National Front has surged in recent years. In the 2012 presidential election, Le Pen received less than 18% of the vote, failing to make it to the second round runoff. But recent polls show her receiving as much as 24% of the vote in the first round this year.
While pollssuggest that a Le Pen victory is unlikely (current forecasts show Fillon getting 65% of the votes to Le Pen’s 35% in the second round), following a year of electoral surprises — from Brexit to Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election – it would be foolish to write Le Pen off completely.
In the Netherlands, polls show the anti-immigration, anti-EU Party for Freedom in the lead ahead of parliamentary elections in March. Party leader Geert Wilders proposes the closure of mosques in the Netherlands, as well as a Dutch exit from the EU.
In Germany, for the first time since the end of World War II, the far-right could make substantial electoral gains in parliamentary elections, likely to be held in September. The Alternative for Germany party is currently polling around 13%, virtually ensuring that it will clear the 5% threshold and attain representation in Germany’s federal parliament.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains popular, and her Christian Democratic Union party leads comfortably in the polls. But her decision to allow more than a million migrants into Germany last year has been attacked from all sides of the political spectrum, and her position could be weakened further if there are additional terror attacks in Germany, following the truck attackon a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016, which killed 12 people.
The Christmas market attack in Berlin showed that Europe remains vulnerable to terrorist violence.
According to Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, 151 people died from terrorist attacks in the EU in 2015, and a further 360 were injured. The same year, there were more than 200 failed, foiled, or completed terrorist attacks in EU member states, and more than 1,000 people were arrested on terrorism-related charges.
Europol estimates that as many as5,000 Europeans have gone to fight in Syria or Iraq, and hundreds have returned home. Many others across Europe have become radicalized online or by local recruiters. They have formedterrorist cells across the continent, lying dormant but capable of planning, financing, and executing deadly attacks.
Tensions between the West and Russia are at their highest level since the end of the Cold War. Over the past several years, Russia has emerged as a much more aggressive and unpredictable power, invading and annexing Crimea in 2014 and supportingseparatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Since 2012, Russia has beenrapidly modernising its military, making it a much more formidable threat to European and NATO defense planners. Russia is building and expanding bases in the Arctic, has made big increases to its military budget, conducted several large-scale military exercises that simulate war with NATO, deployed its military in foreign conflicts such as Syria, stationed nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad region bordering Poland and Lithuania, and upgraded its military equipment. Russian fighter planes also regularly enter or skirt the airspace of NATO countries.
European and NATO military planners worry that Russia might seek to expand its power and influence in the Baltic states. A recent war-gaming exercise from the Rand Corporation showed that Russia could seize one of the Baltic capitals within 60 hours.
Following revelations that Russia hadinterferedin this year’s US presidential election, signs indicate that it may try to do the same in European elections this year. In an attempt to destabilize or disorient Europe, Russia is pursuing a disinformation and propaganda campaign intended to bolster politicians and political parties sympathetic to Russia and its interests in Eastern Europe.
Russia has also cultivateda number of fringe or extremist political groups across Europe, such as the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary and the National Front in France.
A new migration crisis
Following a controversial agreement reached between the EU and Turkey last March, the number of migrants reaching Europe dropped dramatically in 2016. According to the UN refugee agency, 359,000 migrants and refugees reached Europe in 2016 — down from more than a million in 2015 – with Italy now the top destination.
The United Nations estimates that 2.8 million refugees are currently in Turkey. A return of migration on the scale of 2015 would put significant stress on Europe’s system of open internal borders, threatening to permanently undo one of the EU’s signature achievements.
A teetering euro-zone
For almost a decade now, the euro-zone has been in a near-permanent state of crisis. Far from ushering in a period of greater political unity and economic integration in Europe, the euro has introduced new grievances and inequalities among the countries that use it.
Fed up with austerity, tepid economic growth, and an unemployment rate ofjust below 10% in the euro-zone, which is much higher for young workers, many Europeans have become disenchanted with the single currency. Across the 19 countries that use the euro, only 56% of respondents in a recent pollsaid it was “a good thing” for their country, down five points from last year. Only 41% of Italians polled thought the euro was good for Italy.
The failed referendum on constitutional reforms in December 2016 presented a further dose of economic and political uncertainty for the euro-zone’s third-biggest economy. Italy’s anti-establishment, anti-euro Five Star Movement is currently polling neck-and-neck with the Democratic Party, still led by Matteo Renzi, who resigned as prime minister after the referendum.
One country’s exit from the euro-zone could set in motion an unraveling of the entire currency area. The political fallout from the economic pain and uncertainty that would result would be immense.
End of an era?
The European project of political and economic integration has been one the greatest achievements in modern history. For decades, it has brought peace and prosperity to a continent shattered by cycles of war, economic turmoil, and political extremism.
But European integration has never proceeded in a linear manner. For much of its history, the EU has stumbled through one crisis after another. As Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of European integration, said, “I have always believed that Europe would be built through crises and that it would be the sum of their solutions.”
But Monnet also said that solutions had to be intelligently proposed and skillfully applied. That is the challenge that confronts European leaders today: can they apply the right solutions to Europe’s present troubles? They must show citizens that the EU can help address the current difficulties, rather than making them worse. Otherwise, the very future of the union may be at risk.
France is under attack again by radical ISIS supporters. Details are still coming out but what appears to have happen was two men, that claim allegiance with ISIS stormed a church during Mass and slit the throat of the priest and stabbed a nun.
According to reports, one of the attackers was a terrorists, convicted of trying to join forces in Syria, was out on bail and ordered to be monitored by an electronic tag. According to a United Kingdom paper The Daily Mail, his bail terms allowed him to be unsupervised between 8.30am and 12.30pm. Note, the attack happened between 9am and 11am.
European society is under attack. In the midst of this tragedy, one of many; the French people have got to start to wonder what good these emergency powers that were extended can do against these kinds of attacks? Another question is, did the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees that are streaming into Europe from Syria play a part in these safety concerns of the citizens in Europe? Also will these attacks sway the Pope to change his call that Europe must welcome these refugees?
It might be too early to answer these questions right now, but one can’t help but to think that the process of screening these hundreds of thousands refugees is overwhelmed. It’s also clear that the process that is in place, if there is one, isn’t working to weed out the terrorists.
Yet the world is in a war against barbarians of hate. Society should condemn hate in all its forms without concern for political correctness. We can’t worry about hurting people’s feelings when we have barbarians of hate seeking to hurt our free society and its citizens.
Please know this isn’t an anti-Muslim article, nor is it an attack against all Muslims. It is against HATE, pure and simple. It’s against barbarians that are storming the gates of our societies to spread hate and intolerance towards those different from themselves. WE all must rally together and defend our society against these barbarians of hate.
What is more powerful? Hate or Love? I say Love is because Love can build things up, while hate does nothing but destroy. I end this article by leaving you with the words of Jesus from John 13:34-35
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (ESV)
I believe in Jesus, but whether you do or not, we can still follow the sediment of His words and Love one another.
Robert J. Garrison is a political and religious contributor for The Systems Scientist
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