Maghreb fears France’s far-right ‘disaster’, pins hope on Macron
Tunis - Many Maghrebis voted with their hearts and minds for Emmanuel Macron, the French centrist candidate who came out ahead in the first round of France’s presidential elections.
The voters, including officials, are openly hoping the 39-year-old candidate beats far-right contender Marine Le Pen in the second round on May 7, averting a political earthquake in Paris that could have devastating effects for a region wrestling with chaos in Libya and the threat of jihadists.
Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra broke with the longstanding tradition of refraining from public endorsements in French elections and expressed a clear preference for Macron: “Emmanuel Macron is our friend and it is a sufficient reason,” he said. “We are waiting for the run-off.”
Hatem Ben Salem, director-general of the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies, said a Le Pen victory would constitute a “nightmare scenario” and “a huge catastrophe.”
“We have no guarantee against an upset victory of Le Pen because of the particularity of populist movements as they showed in other countries, mainly in the United States,” Ben Salem said.
“The fact that there is a dynamic in favour of populist parties in Europe can create the surprise in favour of Le Pen.”
He described possible human and economic losses for Maghreb countries and France, including the prospect of stranded travellers on the border and waves of expelled migrants.
“I think that the effects of Le Pen’s victory would have the scale of a gigantic disaster, more severe than [US President Donald] Trump’s was for Mexico. Mexico is a big economy with strong sectors and it has Canada to offset some of its losses,” said Ben Salem, referring to Mexico’s struggles in dealing with the repercussions of Trump`s “America First” economic policy and plans to expel thousands of illegal migrants, many of whom are from Mexico.
“The groundswell of populism in Europe will remain with us. Even if Le Pen fails this time, she has a chance to win in 2022, especially if Macron will not do well in curing French woes and introducing more social fairness and modernisation,” he said.
Ben Salem lamented how France’s political shift has exposed the “absence of the Arab Maghreb Union” as a diplomatic tool to defend the region’s common interests.
“With the far right, we are in a scenario of confrontation. That scenario seems inevitable,” he said.
In Tunisia, the media expressed a general preference for Macron, repeating remarks he made during a visit to the country in November.
“I’m delighted to be here in this beautiful country,” Macron said during his trip. “It is tremendous to be here. It is my first trip outside the European Union as a politician. I’m here to understand and cheer Tunisia for the struggle it is leading for itself and by itself.”
In Morocco, Taoufik Bouachrine, editor of Arabic daily Akhbar Alyoum, said: “France, a special country in Europe, will buck the trend of populism that pushed voters in Britain to back Brexit or the US where the electorate picked Donald Trump.
“In France, voters expressed their wishes by selecting a young man named Macron. They will confirm that choice by backing him again on May 7.”
France, which has close cultural links with the Maghreb, has remained a key trade partner for the region, despite North African countries pursuing policies of diversification.
Four of the five Maghreb countries — Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia — are former colonies of France. The fifth Maghreb country, Libya, was colonised by Italy.
Most of the 5 million Muslims in France are from the Maghreb. Recent polls indicated that few French Muslims voted for Le Pen in the first round. Most Muslims in France view her as bigoted towards Muslims, whom she has accused of being a threat to the country’s identity and a potential security risk.
Language and culture continue to bond elites on both shores of the Mediterranean, with thousands of young people from the Maghreb going on to study at French universities.
French language proficiency helps many in the Maghreb closely follow developments in France. In the event of a Le Pen victory, they fear immigration restrictions could threaten their ability to travel.
France is a key source of investment and financial support for Tunisia and Morocco, where hundreds of French enterprises provide jobs for tens of thousands of workers.
Even oil-rich Algeria is looking to secure more French investment and partnership ventures to diversify its economy, which has been traditionally dependent on hydrocarbon.
Analysts predict a Le Pen victory would cause the Maghreb economic losses, human anguish and moral outrage on a scale much greater than what Mexico experienced after the Trump election.
Many in the Maghreb feel they have a stake in Macron’s optimistic vision of a tolerant and open France that will remain one of the main engines of a united Europe, compared to a populist-dominated vision that closes its borders to countries south of the Mediterranean.
Secularist political leaders and intellectual elites in the Maghreb worry that Le Pen’s nationalist vision and her inward-looking France-first agenda could play into the hands of radical Islamist groups.
Analysts urged governments in the region to prepare for the worst if Le Pen wins. Even if she does not, they warn that her ideas and politics have infiltrated a French society shaken by terrorism fears and socio-economic woes.
“It is a political earthquake in France. Whoever wins the presidency, and it will very likely be Macron, elections would have displayed unprecedented political and social changes,” said Rabat University political scientist Hassan Tareq.
The fact that no candidate from either the leftist Socialist party or the right-wing Republican party, the two main political camps that have ruled post-war France, won in the first round only underlined the shift in French politics.
Macron, a former investment banker and a member of government under Socialist President François Hollande, advanced to the run-off backed by a grass-roots campaign and without the support of a major political party.
With Le Pen insisting that France needs to leave the European Union to prosper and Macron seeking closer cooperation among the bloc’s 28 members, the May 7 vote will come as a plebiscite on France’s EU membership and its role on the world stage.