Defence and political issues dominated the headlines when President Francois Hollande visited Malaysia on a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia. The visit commemorated the 60th anniversary of the ties between France and Malaysia. Hollande and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak discussed the potential deals in defence technology, with the prospective sale of Dassault Aviation’s Rafale multi-role combat jets, and cooperation on counterterrorism.
The French president had mentioned again, firstly in his visit to Singapore, that the final mission of his term is to ensure that “populism, nationalism and extremism” will not take hold in France. His term of office ends in mid-May and the leader of France’s far-right National Front party Marine Le Pen is one of the leading candidates to replace him.
Following the election of Donald Trump in the United States and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, France faces its own election, which will decide whether the country remains an avid player of globalisation and multilateralism.
The upcoming French general election on April 23 — with a run-off election on May 7 — would be the most significant affair in the region this year, with high stakes testing the credibility and rise of far-right, nationalist and eurosceptic parties.
Commentators in Le Monde and British newspaper The Guardian warn that victory is possible for Le Pen, a hard-line French nationalist who dislikes immigrants, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU.
Before the attacks that killed more than 130 people in Paris on Nov 13, 2015, Le Pen was parlaying fear of Islam, migrants and open borders into a political motivation that has attracted ardent support. She used terrorist attacks to expand her appeal and show her clout, underscoring the danger of Islamism across Europe.
Like Trump, she builds her support on the negative spectrum of the cultural and economic impact of globalisation. Muslim immigrants, an important issue in French politics recently, have become the scapegoat for the ills of France and the EU.
Like the recently elected US president, Le Pen is a master at whipping up public fear of more terrorist attacks. Her message is strong and flamboyant: “The French need to take back their country from Muslims and multinational institutions.”
Such was the populist theme that resonated too frequently during Trump’s election campaign.
In fact, Le Pen is a big fan of Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and the feelings are apparently mutual. Political analysts predict that “a Le Pen presidency will generate a political earthquake in Europe. Her brand of vindictive populism would have a toxic effect on France’s democratic institutions. And she seems bent on destroying European institutions that have kept peace on the continent since World War 2.”
A Le Pen victory would not only upend France, but will have a big impact on Europe. She wants to close France’s borders and withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the EU, with anti-German speeches personifying her dislike of the German chancellor. She has already promised to secure anti-immigration and anti-EU plans and to ditch the euro currency if she was elected the country’s new leader.
Le Pen’s fractious relationship with Europe was exacerbated when members of the European Parliament voted to rescind her parliamentary immunity over a case involving violent images she posted on Twitter. An inquiry was opened under a French law banning the distribution of violent images after Le Pen tweeted images of killings by Islamic State militants in December 2015.
“Her election would kill the Franco-German engine at the heart of the European project,” said The Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrede at the Brussels Forum.
“She has campaigned consistently against cooperation with Germany and Merkel.
“The era of European cooperation spearheaded by the French-German partnership that ended the horrors of intra-European warfare would be shattered.”
Some claim that her role model is Russia. She received a US$10 million campaign loan from a Kremlin-friendly bank. Le Pen met Putin recently during her Moscow trip. Putin denied interfering with the French election after his meeting with Le Pen.
Meanwhile, Le Pen has called for the lifting of sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. In the meeting, Le Pen criticised EU sanctions against Russia, calling them “unfair and silly”.
A CNBC analyst said “Europe could be on track to encounter a shock wave up to five times as turbulent as the start of the euro zone debt crisis if Le Pen was able to secure victory in May”.
Hollande has a tremendous job ahead of him before he steps out of office. Soft tactics include reaching out to moderate Muslim countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, to curb the rising influence of populism. His Southeast Asia lightning tour was more than about fostering economic and political cooperation.
The impact may influence an alternate Europe seen as never before since World War 2.
Dr Paridah Abd Samad, a Fulbright scholar and Japan Institute of International
Affairs fellow, is a former lecturer of UiTM Shah Alam and International Islamic University Malaysia, Gombak