The French presidential election: a victory on many fronts
15 May 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Korz 19.

The election of Emmanuel Macron as the next President of France has been welcomed as a sign of stability and a positive future for the country and the embattled European Union.

Equally important, however, is what didn’t happen.

In the months leading up to the election, it appeared the twin forces of populism and Islamist extremism could threaten to tear the country—and the EU—apart. Since the shock of the Brexit vote each pending European national election has been accompanied by a dread of the rise of populist right-wing parties. The Dutch general elections in March threatened to bring the controversial Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom into an influential position, but this did not occur. The French presidential campaign similarly saw the seemingly unstoppable rise of Marine Le Pen and the Front National, but they did not win. Forthcoming elections in Italy and Germany have been beset with similar concerns.

Despite Macron’s decisive victory, the French election saw the far-right Front National attract historically high levels of support. It remains to be seen how the FN vote will translate into the National Assembly elections in June. But the message is clear: the democratic process has allowed these voices to be heard but not dominate and—as Macron has promised—their needs must now be accommodated. The result is the emergence intact of Frances’s pluralist society led by its varied democratically-elected representatives.

The second great victory of France’s presidential election is the success of its counter-terrorism efforts. Since 2015 France has borne the brunt of terrorist attacks in Western Europe, sustaining significant mass-casualty attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hypercacher supermarket in January 2015, followed by the attacks in central Paris in November 2015, and the Bastille Day 2016 attack in Nice. French authorities also had to deal with extreme threats of attack during the presidential election campaign.

Islamist terrorist groups seek to undermine the authority of governments through symbolic attacks. For democracies—which are anathema to terrorists—there is no more potent symbol than free and fair elections. Thousands of polling booths around the country also provide potential mass-casualty targets and propaganda headlines for terrorists.

In the lead up to the Presidential election, the so-called Islamic State (IS) terrorist group even went so far as to devote the French-language edition of its online magazine, Rumiyah, to a call for attacks. It featured a typically dramatic image of polling booths with a graphic overlay of flames, as it appealed to Muslims to attack French candidates, polling booths and voters in their supposed ‘duty’ to jihad. But France’s Muslims clearly disagreed with this call, turning out to cast votes rather than attack the electoral process .

French CT agencies, supported by additional police, gendarmerie and military resources were on  high alert to identify and disrupt any looming threats. Ten people were arrested during the election period in relation to the January 2015 Hypercacher attack, but the full range of threats faced and prevented during the campaign may never be fully known. Future charges and prosecutions will provide some indicators.

French authorities should be applauded for their ability to protect the French public and the election process from the dispersed and outsourced threat of Islamist terrorism. As we have seen in Australia with the four low-level single-actor terrorist attacks experienced since 2014, and the recent vehicle attack in London, it is extremely difficult to identify and prevent ‘inspired’ attacks by individuals not already identified as investigative priorities. That French authorities were able to do this for the nation’s polling stations is extraordinary.

The French presidential election campaign was not entirely free from acts of terrorism. The murder of policeman Xavier Jugelé by a criminal-turned-jihadist on the Champs Elysées in central Paris on 21 April continued the terrorism practice of targeting law enforcement officers. An error by IS in claiming the attack for the group—they got the identity wrong—detracted somewhat from its propaganda value. For IS to fail so abjectly in its attempts to incite attacks in France belies its claims  to have strong support in that country and more broadly across Europe.

France’s CT efforts have come at the cost of significant investment and a high operational tempo as well as deaths and injuries of both security personnel and civilians. As Christophe Lecourtier, France’s ambassador in Australia, observed last year, the CT challenge is also a larger battle of values. But, despite the enormity of the task, France is clearly winning.

The triumph of France’s maintaining its open democratic process in the face of the violent threat of terrorism as well as calming and accommodating nationalism and populism is a credit to its people and its CT authorities.