What About Asia? The Hole in the French Presidential Election Debate

Both Le Pen and Macron seem to have an almost complete lack of real understanding or interest in Asia.

By for The Diplomat

The second round of the French presidential elections will take place on May 7, with two finalists who have drastically different visions of the world and the role of France in the international system. Emmanuel Macron, the maverick 39-year-old center-left candidate who a year ago was a relative unknown, is all for openness, inclusiveness and the positive role of globalization.  For Marine Le Pen, whose party, the National Front, is firmly anchored to the far right of the political spectrum, the stress is more on insularity, and protectionism. But if Macron distinguishes himself with his optimism, Marine Le Pen’s position echoes growing frustrations in a profoundly divided French society.

Both Le Pen and Macron however have one common point and that is an almost complete lack of real understanding or obvious interest in Asia. In that sense, they share a very traditional and outdated, quasi provincial, France-centered vision of the world. This lack of perspective beyond the borders of France and Europe reflects, of course, the very limited place of international concerns in general in the election campaign. As for Asia, distance — despite the fact that France is also a Pacific power — and an apparent lack of strategic urgency in comparison with the Middle East and the terrorist threat explains that deficit of interest.

Yet, Asia accounts for one-third of world trade. The economic growth of the region is less dynamic than it used to be, but it is still the main source of global growth. In the event of a sudden slowdown in China, the entire world economy, including that of France, would be affected.

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It is also in Asia that the largest number of nuclear powers — including China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, plus Russia and the United States – are concentrated. Behind a façade of stability, it is also in this region that tensions, on the Korean peninsula of course, but also in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, between India and China or India and Pakistan, could rapidly lead to open conflicts. The overall strategic consequences of any conflicts involving major powers in the region would of course be massive; and the more so for France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with special obligations and no right to indifference. With the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula, the next president of France might very well have to urgently take the situation in Asia seriously.

In that context, the fact that the few references to Asia found in the programs of the candidates are based on clichés used to support a narrative with no connection with the most recent developments in the region is the most worrying. In spite of its major significance, Asia is more of a phantasm than a real object of…

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