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POLITICS

France’s presidential election candidates begin the final push

A week before France's high-stakes presidential election, the four top candidates began a final push to woo undecided voters who will determine the outcome of the tight race between the hard left, centre, right and far right.

France's presidential election candidates begin the final push
Election posters. Photo: AFP

On April 23rd, the French go to the polls in the most unpredictable vote in the country's post-war history to choose two candidates from a field of 11 who will go through to a run-off two weeks later.

With a duel between far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Communist-backed radical Jean-Luc Melenchon, both eurosceptics, among one of six possible outcomes the election is being closely watched in Brussels and around the world.

Opinion polls show one in three voters still undecided about who to back after a campaign characterised by scandals and upsets. In an interview in Le Parisien newspaper on Sunday, 65-year-old Melenchon, who is threatening to quit the euro and massively increase public spending, vowed he would be a safe pair of hands on the eurozone's second-largest economy.

“I am not from the far left,” the leader of the La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) movement said, insisting he was “ready to govern”.

Melenchon's surge has shaken up the race, with many hesitating between voting with their hearts and a tactical vote for whichever candidate they see as best placed to keep Le Pen or Melenchon out of power.

Le Pen, whom polls show leading the first round with centrist Emmanuel Macron on around 22-24 percent each, returned to her party's core themes of immigration and Islam Saturday to try to mobilise her base.

The opinion polls had shown her virtually assured of a place in the May 7th runoff but Melenchon and the conservative Francois Fillon have narrowed the gap with her and Macron to about three points, blowing the race wide open.

Identity angst

In a speech in the southern city of Perpignan the 48-year-old National Front (FN) leader lashed out at Macron and Fillon, accusing them of being soft on radical Islam.

“With Mr Macron, it would be Islamism on the move,” Le Pen said, in a play on the name of Macron's En Marche (On the Move) party, calling the 39-year-old champion of diversity “unscrupulous”.

Casting herself as the best defender against the jihadists who have killed over 230 people in France since 2015, Le Pen also tore into Fillon, accusing him of letting ultraconservative Islam gain ground when he was prime minister between 2007 and 2012.

The election has revealed high levels of angst over a perceived erosion of French identity, which Le Pen has pinned on immigration, particularly from Muslim North Africa.

In an Ifop-Fiducial poll for Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD) newspaper 86 percent of FN voters said they “no longer feel at home” in France and 73 percent considered Islam incompatible with the French Republic.

But the poll also showed Le Pen, who has spent years trying to detoxify the FN's image, still struggling to win over the absolute majority of voters needed for victory in a run-off.

Three-quarters of non-FN voters said the party as “dangerous for democracy” and four out of five found it “racist”.

'Scapegoating Europe'

Fillon, who is on the rebound from a damaging expenses scandal that had caused some of his voters to switch to Le Pen or Macron, used Easter to mobilise his traditionalist Catholic base.

“Patriotism is not a dirty word,” he told supporters in the cathedral town of Puy-en-Velay on Saturday – borrowing from the songbook of Le Pen who styles the FN the “party of patriots”.

In an interview published Sunday, the 63-year-old former prime minister, who refused to bow out despite being charged with misusing public money over payments to his wife, said he was convinced the scandal was behind him.

“I know I will be in the second round,” he told the JDD.

If elected he would “unite everyone” and “wipe the slate clean,” said Fillon, who has accused the left, the judiciary and media of fomenting the expenses scandal to try to derail his presidential bid.

The presence among the top four of two anti-globalisation candidates who have threatened to take France out of the euro – Le Pen and Melenchon – has caused jitters among investors.

During a visit to the World War I battlefield of Chemin des Dames on Sunday, outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande warned against “scapegoating Europe” which had “protected us against war”.

By Clare Byrne

POLITICS

France says all troops left Mali, ending nine-year military mission

The last soldiers belonging to France's Barkhane operation in Mali have now left the African country, the French chiefs of staff said on Monday.

France says all troops left Mali, ending nine-year military mission

French forces have been supporting Mali against insurgents for nearly a decade, but President Emmanuel Macron decided to pull out after France and the Malian junta fell out in the wake of a military takeover.

“Today at 13H00 Paris time (1100 GMT) the final contingent of the Barkhane force still on Malian territory crossed the border between Mali and Niger,” the statement said.

The army had met the “major military logistics challenge” of the pull-out “in an orderly and safe fashion”, it added.

After ties ruptured between Paris and the junta that took power in Mali in August 2020, France began to withdraw its troops in February, as jihadist violence surged in the Sahel.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Why were French soldiers in Mali?

Friction developed over the junta’s delays in restoring civilian rule and escalated when Mali brought in Russian paramilitaries — personnel described by France as “mercenaries” from the pro-Kremlin Wagner group.

‘Prevented caliphate’

Macron on Monday congratulated the military on its nine years in Mali, saying it had “prevented the establishment of a territorial caliphate, and fought against terrorists that attack local populations and threaten Europe”. 

Most high-ranking members of the “terrorist groups” had been “neutralised”, he said, adding that 59 French soldiers had died in Mali in total.

More than 2,000 civilians have been killed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally based on the findings of non-governmental organisation ACLED.

In this file photo taken on December 07, 2021 shows the French flag and France-led special operations logo for the new Task Force Takuba, a multinational military mission in sub-Saharan Africa’s troubled Sahel region. (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP)

BACKGROUND: France announces withdrawal of troops from Mali

At its peak, France’s Barkhane mission had 5,100 troops among five Sahel allies, all former French colonies — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The forces have provided key support in air power, troop transport and reconnaissance. France has an air base in Niger’s capital Niamey where it has deployed drones.

After the Malian pullout, the mission will have “around 2,500” troops, Barkhane commander General Laurent Michon said last month.

The reconfigured mission will emphasise “more cooperative operations,” he said.

Frontline Niger

France will keep more than 1,000 men in Niger, where a tactical group will continue to work in partnership with the Nigerien forces.

Niger is a frontline state in the fight against jihadism as the unstable region struggles with a string of military coups.

“The democratic regression in West Africa is extremely worrying,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told French MPs ahead of a trip to the region in July. 

“However, in spite of these events (and) the withdrawal from Mali, France will continue to help West African armies fight terrorist groups.”

Niger is one of the biggest recipients of French aid, receiving 143 million euros ($146 million) last year.

READ ALSO: France calls Mali’s exit from defence accords ‘unjustified’

The two sides will sign agreements for a French loan of 50 million euros and a grant of 20 million euros.

Niger, the world’s poorest country by the benchmark of the UN’s Human Development Index, has been badly hit by the jihadist insurgency that began in northern Mali in 2012 and then swept to neighbouring countries.

Niger is facing insurgencies both on its western border with Mali and Burkina Faso and on its south-eastern frontier with Nigeria.

More than a thousand troops will be deployed in Niger, providing air support and training, according to French sources.

French troops are also in Gabon, Ivory Coast and Senegal, as well as in the east of Africa, in Djibouti.

READ ALSO: Macron agrees to return Benin sculptures ‘without delay’

Macron in June asked the government and military chiefs “to rethink our overall presence on the African continent by the autumn.”

He called for “a presence that is less static and less exposed” and “a closer relationship” with African armed forces.

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