Le Pen’s Quest to Restore Sovereignty to France

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In a matter of weeks, the people of France will head to the polling booths to elect the new President of the French Republic. The most talked about candidate in the lead-up to the election has been no other than Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National party.

What do you need to know about Le Pen? She is a former lawyer, she finished third in the 2012 presidential election, she loves cats and her nationalistic vision for France is winning her supporters left, right and centre (but mainly from the right).

Le Pen has compiled a list of 144 “presidential commitments” that outline her intentions should she be elected. Although Le Pen’s public persona is not anywhere near as outlandish or divisive as that of fellow populist US President Donald Trump (for whom she has expressed support) she has made statements that have nonetheless stirred up considerable controversy.

Straight off the bat, commitment #1 confirms Le Pen’s intention to hold a referendum on France’s European Union (EU) membership. A vocal Eurosceptic, Le Pen praised the UK’s decision to go down the path of Brexit, and is pushing for France to follow suit in what has been variously termed “Frexit”, “Fraurevoir”, or my personal favourite, “Oui Out”. As we have seen in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, this is not a straightforward process.

Le Pen also calls for European flags to be removed from public buildings, and for France to abandon the euro and re-establish a national currency. A theme of regaining French “sovereignty” persists throughout the list, with talk of “intelligent protectionism” and “economic patriotism”, and of defending French identity, values and traditions.

From an international legal perspective, Le Pen and the people of France are right to be concerned about sovereignty, which is one of the building blocks of international law. However, it is oversimplifying the matter to say that if Frexit happens, France will magically become the master of its own destiny across all areas. Not even the most powerful States can do whatever they like without consequences.

Nevertheless, the idea of seizing back control from the “elites” in Brussels has gained traction in the minds of some French voters, as it did in Britain. Hypothetically, if a referendum could be held on the issue of Frexit, and the Leave vote won, this would have implications for international law. Since the EU possesses international legal personality it can, as one bloc, conclude treaties with third parties. To date, the EU has concluded 1157 bilateral and multilateral agreements. Should France leave, it would need to determine which agreements it was no longer bound by, and pursue new ties if it wanted to remain in the loop. In any case, if the UK and France (and potentially others) really do manage to leave, the entire future of the EU is uncertain.

Le Pen’s proposed policies on immigration have also drawn attention. Following the Charlie Hebdo shooting and Paris attacks of 2015, and the attack in Nice on Bastille Day last year, there are fears that uncontrolled immigration will lead to further acts of terrorism being committed on French soil. Le Pen wants to restore France’s borders and exit the Schengen Area (which allows for the free movement of EU citizens). This proposal has enjoyed fairly widespread support. She has also announced her intention to reduce legal immigration to 10 000 people per year.

When it comes to asylum seekers, however, international human rights law has a role to play, whether Le Pen likes it or not. She has committed to expelling immigrants who are residing illegally in France, and although she may wish to escape any obligations imposed by the EU, France remains bound by the Refugee Convention, which it ratified in 1954. Under this treaty, the obligation of non-refoulement means that if a person is found to be a genuine refugee, they must not be returned to a country where they will once again be at risk of persecution (even if they were an unlawful entrant into France).

Whether one supports her vision or not, Le Pen’s influence is not to be overlooked; a recent poll indicated that she is the preferred candidate of 24% of voters. But for those French citizens who are not Front National supporters, what are the other options? Le Pen has two main opponents: François Fillon of Les Républicains and independent candidate Emmanuel Macron. The first round of the election will be held on April 23. If no candidate achieves a majority of votes (which is likely), a run-off round will pit the top two candidates against each other on May 7.

Lauren Carmody is a soon-to-be graduate of the Master of International Law at UWA. She considers her greatest achievement to be that time she managed to get her winged eyeliner perfectly even.

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