Marine Le Pen of the National Front Party, versus Emmanuel Le Pen of Forward!
Dieter Dettke of Georgetown University, center, talks with Maurin Picard of French newspaper Le Figaro on the upcoming French and German elections in a panel moderated by GPB’s Rickey Bevington, left.

France is poised to go to the polls this Sunday in a highly anticipated presidential election in which some say the fate of the EU hangs in the balance.  

While the stakes are high, few expect a surprise outcome. Polls put newcomer Emmanuel Macron at a more than 60-40 favorite in a runoff with Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Front. Ms. Le Pen has ridden a wave of anti-European sentiment into the final round and seeks to hold a referendum on the country’s EU membership if elected.  

But even barring an upset, the results will be consequential in a wild and unpredictable year that saw two of France’s major parties all but sabotage their chances at victory, leaving political outsiders as the last man and woman standing. 

The Republican candidate, Francois Fillon, was seen as a front-runner early on, having served as prime minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy. But Mr. Fillon was savaged in the press after the discovery that a sum of about a million euros was paid from state coffers to his wife and children for work they allegedly never completed. The Socialist Party of current President Francois Hollande, meanwhile, is dealing with backlash from the public and internal divisions over its future.  

So far this year, visiting and resident voices in Atlanta have tried to parse out what the French election will mean for the fragile, Brexit-racked European Union, and how it might impact other pending contests in the United Kingdom and Germany.  

The outcomes are relevant for Georgia, as the EU’s health bears heavily on the state’s economy. Most of its top investing nations are EU members. More than 300 facilities operating in the state are owned by German parent companies, for instance.  About a third of Georgia’s exports go the 28 EU member countries.

In January, with anxiety already building months in advance of April’s first round, experts at a local celebration of the Elysee Treaty between Germany and France tried to give Atlantans at the Goethe-Zentrum a look into the proverbial crystal ball.  

This wasn’t just about keeping Americans informed: About half of attendees raised a hand when asked whether they would be voting (remotely) in either of this year’s French or German elections.

Maurin Picard, New York-based correspondent for French newspaper “Le Figaro,” said the situation was too fluid to make a prediction, but he didn’t count out Ms. Le Pen or the possibility that substantive changes could be on the horizon. 

In the end, the French contest will show how nationalism and xenophobia have changed the political calculus on the continent, he said, and how far the European project still has to go.

“Maybe the European idea is so beautiful that it’s going to take a lot of time for us to make it,” Mr. Picard said.

His interlocutor, Dieter Dettke of Georgetown University, was more sanguine about resiliency of the EU, even as he acknowledged “existential threats” facing the bloc. Despite Brexit, and in contrast to Mr. Picard, he predicted that the EU would come out of this pivotal year intact and strengthened with a bit more clarity.  

“There will be, I’m pretty sure, no domino effect from Brexit,” Mr. Dettke said.  

In Germany, which holds national elections in the fall, he said Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union would most likely win the most votes but that it might be tough to form a coalition with its main challenger, the center-left Social Democrats. The SPD got a bump of support earlier in the year by naming former European Parliament President Martin Schulz to challenge Ms. Merkel, but it still trails in the polls.  

“Coalition building is going to be the difficult part of the German electoral system,” Mr. Dettke said at the time.

That assessment looks to be holding true. Recent polls put support for the anti-immigrant, anti-European party Alternative for Germany at 9 perfect as it seeks to enter national parliament for the first time. That’s just below the far-left Linke at 10.5 percent. The Greens had 6.5 percent, while the Free Democrats notched 7 percent.  

During a discussion with Global Atlanta in March, German Consul General Detlev Ruenger said media reports about European elections should be taken with a grain of salt.  

The Dutch elections in March provided an object lesson. While newspapers framed it as a victory for Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative party, euro-skeptic and anti-Muslim Geert Wilders’ populist Party for Freedom actually gained ground in parliament.  

The problem with the framing of the results was the starting point: an unrealistic expectation that Mr. Wilders had a shot at forming a government in the first place, Mr. Ruenger said. Commenting on France, German diplomat saw no “realistic risk” at the time that Ms. Le Pen would emerge as the victor. 

All that said, the right-wing leader has used her bully pulpit to make her often-colorful voice heard in heated national debates against the 39-year-old Mr. Macron, a former economic minister who has never held elected office.  

And Ms. Le Pen could be playing more for relevance in parliament than a realistic shot at the Elysee Palace, which could potentially be more concerning to those who value European integration. 

Although the president selects the prime minister, the composition of the French National Assembly will play a major factor in his or her ability to rule. If an opposition coalition takes the majority in parliament, the president would see his influence reduced to priorities like foreign policy and defense, but not national policy.

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that many in Atlanta will support the result that keeps the France — which many call the linchpin of the European Union — on solid footing, for the sake of the bloc. The French consulate says more than half of French residents voting in its territory here in the Southeast picked Mr. Macron in the first round.

“We at the French foreign ministry do not believe in breaking, exiting, dismantling or destroying the EU, or getting rid of the common currency. We think it’s the way forward,” said Louis de Corail, consul general of France, after outlining the benefits of Franco-German collaboration enabled by the Elysee Treaty in 1963.

“We need more Europe, not less Europe.”

More on the electoral process in France and how the local consulate general is preparing here: French Consulate Prepares for Controversial Presidential Election

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...

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