France's status in the EU is at stake in the run-off vote for the French presidency. Frontrunner Macron has promises to woo financiers and make Paris "the new London," while far-right Le Pen courts far-left voters scared of free market reforms.

Graffiti on the streets of Paris calling for "general abstention" and an "electoral strike" in protest against the two final candidates.
Graffiti on the streets of Paris calling for "general abstention" and an "electoral strike" in protest against the two final candidates.

PARIS — Damien Soldadie, an ecologist from Toulouse who now lives in Paris, voted in France's first round of presidential elections for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose campaign centred on a pledge to free the country from what many believe is the failure of capitalism. With his candidate of choice knocked out, this Sunday, Soldadie will begrudgingly vote for the free-market candidate Emmanuel Macron — whose politics he is "totally against."

That's because the only alternative is Marine Le Pen.

"I truly believe that we have to localise economics in France," he said. "We have to develop the local economy in terms of local production, agriculture. I think we are at the limits of the capitalist system."

Soldadie dislikes French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron's pro-free market policies, but will vote for him over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. (Elizabeth Walsh/TRT World)
Soldadie dislikes French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron's pro-free market policies, but will vote for him over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. (Elizabeth Walsh/TRT World)

Soldadie is not exactly enthused by Macron's plans for the French economy. Neither are Le Pen voters Benedetta Scotti and Reza Mehrabani.

Scotti, a social conservative who grew up in Rome, will protest Macron's agenda when she votes for Le Pen this weekend. She is concerned about France's unemployment — ten percent as of March — and believes free trade agreements currently under negotiation, like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), pose a threat to its agricultural industry.

"I'm not against the idea of having a European project," she explained. "But I don't like the way the European project has been conducted, especially over the last 20 years. It has become an Orwellian super-bureaucracy that sets rules about every aspect of life."

"Neither Macron, nor Le Pen"

Reza Mehrabani, an architectural designer from Strasbourg, believes Le Pen's economic programme is more detailed and organised than Macron's, and wants France to leave the EU. Even if Le Pen instigated a "Frexit," he believes it would not have the catastrophic effect that many predict.

He is concerned that pro-EU policies will, in his view, continue to benefit only the wealthy.

"Macron just wants to reproduce the global bankers' systems," he said. Like Scotti, Mehrabani chose Le Pen over Melenchon in the first round, because he believes the socialist's views are too close to communism and would undermine France's democracy.

But their views on the economy are not so different from those who opted for the far-left candidate. Many are unhappy with the choice they face this weekend, perhaps none more so than those who voted for Melenchon. Protests erupted throughout Paris last week, as students charged the streets with cries of "Ni Macron, Ni Le Pen" (neither Macron, nor Le Pen).

French high school students hold a banner which reads
French high school students hold a banner which reads "Neither homeland, neither boss. Neither Le Pen, Nor Macron" during a protest in Paris following the results of the first round of the presidential election. (Reuters)

Melenchon, though he has said he will not vote for Le Pen, has nevertheless continued to attack Macron, while Le Pen simultaneously seeks to convince leftist voters who are unhappy with Macron's economic plans that she is the best alternative. As recently as Monday, Melenchon called on Macron to revise his plans to accommodate complaints from the far-left.

In the first round of elections, Macron captured 24.01 percent of the popular vote and Le Pen came in second, with 21.3 percent. That left more than 50 percent of the population divided between the Republican candidate Francois Fillon — who came in third with 20.01 percent of the vote — Melenchon with 19.58 percent, and 15 percent to seven other candidates. The remaining 22.23 percent abstained.

Economy biggest concern

Questions about how to revitalise France's economy and combat unemployment are at the forefront of many voters' minds. Throughout their campaigns, Le Pen and Melenchon blamed the European Union for France's economic woes, and played to nationalist fervour by promising to leave the EU and NATO. Macron and Fillon, meanwhile, advocated more economically liberal policies, and continued cooperation with the EU.

For the most part, Frexit fears have abated after the first round of elections, as polls predict that pro-EU Macron will win by a comfortable margin on May 7.

Part of Macron's plans include tough negotiation terms for Brexit. A Macron-led negotiation may not only benefit French fishermen, who could lose access to international waters, but also financiers in London who could be enticed to set up shop in Paris, rather than Frankfurt or Amsterdam.

Once Brexit is complete, "passporting rights" — or the legal mechanism that allows a company in one European country to do business in other EU member states — will disappear. More concerning yet are immigration issues. Last week, Jess Staley, CEO of Barclays, said that London's future ability to keep hiring the best global talent is now seen as a bigger priority within the British banking industry than trade agreements or passporting rights — especially because banks increasingly seek to hire top engineers.

This has not been lost on Macron, who hopes to make Paris into Europe's digital capital. His website proclaims that "digital is not a sector: it is a profound transformation of the ways we produce, consume, learn, work, and exchange — simply, how we live."

Earlier this year, he brought his message to London — with some 300,000 French immigrants, it has been dubbed France's sixth biggest city.

"I want banks, talents, researchers, academics and so on," he said during the visit. "I think that France and the European Union are a very attractive space now, so in my programme I will do everything I can to make it attractive and successful."

Will Paris be the new London?

Not everyone is thrilled.

Both Mehrabani and Scotti support Le Pen in part because of her commitment to national sovereignty, something that they believe is essential to protect France's citizens and unique culture. It is also why they respect the Brexit decision and are not concerned about the potential disintegration of the EU, something that they believe is a failed project.

"I'm not really enthusiastic about Paris being the new financial capital of Europe," Scotti said. "Because when you have thousands of bankers moving to a city, you know that the real estate prices will go up, and the cost of living in Paris is already very high. I can't imagine what it would be if you had all the JP Morgans and Goldman Sachs coming to Paris."

Still, she would like to see more job opportunities at home for skilled French expats who currently work in London.

Soldadie is also concerned about the effects of Macron's plans.

"It depends on the sector," he said. "I think if technology and energy companies come to help us innovate in these fields — yes. But if it's businesses that don't help build the world of tomorrow, as I see it — more ecological, with more equality — if it's just to pursue the system, I disagree."

The system he fears is one like those in the UK, United States, and Germany. Soldadie rejects the German model, which he says has low unemployment because so many young people work multiple part-time and temporary jobs to make ends meet.

"Workers are people. They are not resources," he said.

Nevertheless, in April, HSBC — who is already moving jobs to Parisreported to Bloomberg that some of its larger clients have begun to book their activity through its Paris-based offices instead of those in the UK.

Since the UK's referendum last June, analysts have debated which European city will become the "new London" once the UK loses access to the European market. Teams in France have begun working to attract those businesses, and late last year, the city began an ad campaign in London.

For those working in the startup industry in Paris, the changes that could arrive with post-Brexit incentives would be welcomed.

Roy Moussa is a Canadian entrepreneur working for Qopius, a startup that uses artificial intelligence to digitise retail for brick and mortar businesses. Although he co-founded the company, he struggled with France's notorious bureaucracy. Obtaining his visa and bank account required months of paperwork and patience, and he will have to go through the process again in just a year.

In terms of technical skills, though, he says that France is "top notch." The engineers in Paris are better than those in Canada or the United States, he says, and his American clients are catching on. That's why, for him, Paris is the best hub for new technology.

"But," he warned, "Paris as a culture is extremely risk averse. And that means that investors are extremely risk averse. In the US, they're just buying risk."

The upside to working for a startup in a country with a lot of state-sponsored programmes such as BPIFrance — which provides financial services to entrepreneurs — is that grants are easy to come by, and they can have fewer attachments than private money. The expectation among young entrepreneurs is that Macron will continue to remove some of the bureaucratic red tape that makes it challenging to take risks and hire talent from abroad.

"Everyone in the office talks about it. We really hope he wins," he said.

To reform or not to reform

To really open the doors, Paris would require significant shifts in both policy and culture. In addition to lengthy visa processes, other obstacles include a dislike for its major airports and a reputation for being less English-friendly than other European cities. Taxes are also notoriously high.

Howard Davies, Chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, commended French regulators and said that while the perception that not enough people speak English is overblown, France nevertheless needs to improve its reputation first — especially with American businesses, which he believes are the ones most in need of convincing if the city wants to become a major financial centre.

France, he said to TRT World, has a "significant credibility problem." In the past, French politicians have promised reforms to labour and tax laws that would open doors to foreign companies and investors.

That hasn't happened.

Such reforms would also run counter to the aspirations of many French citizens, who value the long tradition of a strong welfare system and relative equality, compared to what many voters view as the harshness of more unrepentantly capitalist societies.

Thus, while Macron "says all the right things," and private equity and asset managers would "run in the opposite direction if Le Pen were to win," Davies said that ultimately, "it makes no difference until the legislative elections take place."

Those elections are scheduled for June 11 and 18, during which all 577 seats in its National Assembly will be up for voters to decide.

And while polls may again prove correct about a win for Macron, the candidate who Scotti said has "tried too hard to please too many" is bound to see frustration manifest in June.

"People are not threatened anymore," Soldadie warned. "All the politicians threaten us and say to us, vote for Emmanuel Macron to be against the National Front. But I cannot vote against something. I would like to vote for something. That's what I did in the first round, of course."

And come June's legislative elections, he will vote for La France Insoumise — Melenchon's movement that is staunchly opposed to many of Macron's economic proposals.

Source: TRT World