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France on edge as vote looms – EU hot-button issue in French vote

Workers prepare voting booths at a polling station in Lyon, central France on April 22. The two-round presidential election will take place on April 23 and May 7. (AP)

PARIS, April 22, (AFP): France was on edge Saturday on the eve of its most unpredictable presidential election in decades, which will take place under heightened security after the jihadist killing of a policeman.

The Islamic State-claimed slaying of the officer on Paris’s Champs Elysees avenue thrust questions of security to the fore of campaigning after nine months of relative calm.

Nearly a quarter of voters are still undecided, and surveys showed until now the French to be more concerned about jobs and the economy than terrorism. But analysts warned Thursday’s shooting could change that.

The top two vote getters in Sunday’s tight, four-way contest will head to a run-off on May 7.

Authorities in Paris have offered additional guards for hundreds of polling stations in the capital, which will come on top of an already major security plan across the country.

“An extra guard or reinforcement of staff will be provided to any polling station that needs it,” Paris town hall official Colombe Brossel said.

On Sunday, around 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers will be deployed to protect voters around France.

Voters headed to the polls on Saturday in many of France’s overseas territories like Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, as well as in the US.

France was still shaken two days after 39-year-old gunman Karim Cheurfi shot dead a police officer and wounded two others before being killed, in an attack that sent tourists on the Champs Elysees rushing for cover.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen moved quickly to present herself as the strongest defender against Islamist radicals in a country under a state of emergency since a string of terror attacks that began in 2015, which have killed more than 230 people.

The 48-year-old leader of the anti-immigration National Front (FN) called for France to “immediately” take back control of its borders from the European Union and deport all foreigners on a terror watchlist.

“This war against us is ceaseless and merciless,” she said, accusing the Socialist government of a “cowardly” response to the threat.

Centrist Emmanuel Macron and conservative Francois Fillon also hastily convened televised briefings in which they vowed to protect the country.

“Some haven’t taken the full measure of the evil,” 63-year-old Fillon said, promising an “iron-fisted” approach.

Macron, a 39-year-old moderate whom Fillon has portrayed as too inexperienced for the top job, said France was paying for the intelligence jobs cuts made when Fillon was prime minister between 2007 and 2012.

Describing the Champs Elysees shooting as an attack on democracy, he urged voters: “Do not give in to fear.”

Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, 65, was the only one of the four to stick to his schedule. He called for a “Europe of rebels”, during a rally in Paris with Pablo Iglesias, the head of Spain’s far-left Podemos party.

Meanwhile, such is Marine Le Pen’s aversion to the European Union that the French far-right leader demanded the removal of its star-spangled flag from a TV studio before agreeing to a recent interview.


Her chief rival in the race for the French presidency, centrist Emmanuel Macron, pointedly waved an EU flag from the podium at a campaign rally the next day.

Love it or loathe it, the European Union has become a hot-button issue in the election, fanning fears far beyond France in the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote that a “Frexit” could doom the 60-year-old bloc.

“Rarely has the European issue held such a pre-eminent place on all the candidates’ platforms as in this electoral campaign,” said analyst Pierre Vimont of the Carnegie Europe think tank.

In the five years since France’s last presidential vote, Europe has seen a massive migrant crisis and a rise in populism, both contributing to the Brexit vote.

None of the four main French candidates can afford to be neutral on the EU, whether they portray it as the source of all woes or a guarantee of peace and stability.

Like Macron, conservative candidate Francois Fillon is bullish on Brussels, highlighting the Franco-German leadership axis and defending the euro.

Both candidates met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the campaign.

Arrayed on the other side are Le Pen, who advocates leaving the EU immediately, and hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who demands a renegotiation of key treaty provisions.

“Positions have hardened,” said Manuel Lafont Rapnouil of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Melenchon was very influenced by what happened to (Greek anti-austerity party) Syriza,” which gave in to European demands after months of crisis.

Syriza, the party of Greek premier Alexis Tsipras, endorsed Melenchon, saying he “represents hope for change for France and Europe”.

Le Pen, on the other hand, “is riding the wave of Brexit” and Donald Trump’s surprise accession to the White House, he said.

The ideological underpinnings of the two candidates’ eurosceptism are worlds apart, however.

Le Pen stresses economic, monetary and territorial “sovereignty”, along with a “national preference” for French citizens in the workplace and the allocation of state benefits.

Melenchon vows to end the “nightmare” of an EU that submits its members to “the dictatorship of the banks” and the austerity policies they impose.

But both promise a showdown with Brussels and say they are certain to come out on top given the strength of France within the bloc.

Le Pen says she will launch six months of talks aimed at withdrawing France from the visa-free Schengen area, as well as from the euro, before calling a referendum on whether the French want to leave the EU — a so-called “Frexit”.

For his part, Melenchon has a two-pronged approach summed up as “change the EU or leave it”: a Plan A by which France will renegotiate its membership terms and a Plan B for a unilateral Frexit.


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