British See French Election Through Prism of Own Politics

Marine Le Pen is seen as part of the same populist backlash that led a majority of British voters to support Brexit.

The United Kingdom on a globe
The United Kingdom on a globe (Ali Wade)

While we in United Kingdom do not have a vote in today’s presidential runoff, the election in France has dominated conversation and news. Which is somewhat remarkable, given the state of Britain’s own politics.

Despite this unusual attention for a French election, the British do not appear to have a strong preference for either Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen.

One or two years ago, the choice would have been simpler. Macron stands for a liberalism that is familiar to Britons: he advocates free trade, privatization, deregulation and cuts to bureaucracy and welfare. David Cameron won the 2015 election on just such a platform. Macron would have been the favorite.

But much has happened in the last few years. Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union has changed everything. Le Pen is seen as part of the same populist backlash that prompted a majority of British voters to support Brexit last year.

Le Pen obsession

There are three reasons the British press are mildly obsessed with Le Pen.

Firstly, there is schadenfreude. A Le Pen victory would reassure Britons they’re not the only ones who can make a mistake.

Secondly, ardent Brexiteers would welcome the damage and uncertainty a President Le Pen could cause to the European project.

Thirdly, these people agree with the leader of the National Front when she claims France will in any case be led by a woman: “Either me or Mrs Merkel.”

Stalled populism

Yet the media focus on Le Pen is also misguided. Brexit-Trump populism has stalled in continental Europe. The elections in Austria and the Netherlands were won by pro-European candidates. The same is likely to happen in France today.

This leaves the United Kingdom, and its hardline pro-Brexit government, isolated from its allies.

The question for British voters in the upcoming weeks will be whether their parties can temper their rhetoric and still bring themselves to work with what are — for now — our friends in Europe.