French Elections- Protecting UK strategic interests in the case of a Le Pen Presidency

Polling at 41% for the second round, the chance of Marine Le Pen becoming the next French president should not be ignored. Marine Le Pen stormed into the second round of the French Elections with 21.4%, a whole 4.5% higher (almost 3 million more voters) than the National Front’s (FN) previous best result in 2002.  This second of two articles examining the impacts of the French presidential elections looks at what would a potential Le Pen presidency mean for the UK. Her party, the FN, has a history of racist, anti-Semitic, anti-establishment rhetoric, which would make it an uncomfortable partner for the UK. FN policies such as “intelligent protectionism” and taking France out of NATO could equally well clash with our Government’s strategic objectives, both economic and defence related.

Economic Interests

Were Marine Le Pen to hold an EU Referendum in France resulting in Frexit it would have significant implications for both the UK’s trade with France and the UK’s negotiations with the EU.

France is the UK’s 4th biggest trading partner. With France in the EU, the risk of a temporarily sour Anglo-French relationship impacting trade is diluted, but a Frexit France would have total control over its own trade policy. Le Pen’s support and praise of Brexit does not extend to and is indeed in stark contrast to her opinion of Theresa May, and the UK isn’t being promised a front spot at the queue of any future bilateral trade deals. Trade by nature can be mutually beneficial, but Le Pen is fiercely protectionist, and the UK risks losing an important share of its international trade if its cards are not played right. Co-operation on bilateral projects such as Hinkley Point would come under threat, and resolving these challenges will become a priority for the UK government.

Marine Le Pen’s Presidency would throw a spanner of some form or shape into the Brexit negotiations. It is uncertain at what exact point she would hold a Frexit referendum, and indeed uncertain as to what the result would be. If the referendum were held some time after the election, and/or France vote to remain, France would have a strong say in the Brexit negotiations. Le Pen’s admiration of Brexit clashes with her strong protectionism, making France an unpredictable negotiating partner for the EU, although not necessarily in the UK’s interest. A divided EU 27 could well make it harder to come to a final agreement.

If Frexit were immediate, the EU would be faced with total chaos and uncertainty that would probably extend to the Brexit negotiations. Dealing with Brexit and Frexit simultaneously could extend the duration of the Brexit process but also has potential to strengthen the UK’s hand.


Defence and Security

Le Pen wishes to make France an even more important international actor through a strictly realist approach to international relations, that is to say an approach that prioritises state sovereignty.

Le Pen has repeatedly stated she will take France out of NATO. The headline “France to quit NATO!” would cause alarm for many in the UK, but it could equally be “France to quit NATO after 8 years”, which would give some perspective as it was only in 2009 under Sarkozy that France re-joined. France is a valuable member of NATO, but unlike the US is not the cornerstone of the organisation. Whilst France leaving would be a blow to NATO, and consequently to an extent to the UK, the UK has a history of military and defence co-operation with France that extends well beyond NATO.

There are no strong indications that Le Pen would seek to scrap current agreements but it wouldn’t be considered a surprise if she did. Le Pen aims to vastly increase spending on defence, as part of a strategy to have a more “powerful France”. A strong international France could decide it didn’t want close military integration with the UK. Although French and UK foreign policy may sometimes clash instead of align, a France with greater defence capabilities could nonetheless prove to be a positive ally for the UK.

Beyond Frexit, one of the biggest geopolitical concerns for the UK of a Le Pen presidency is that of Russia. Marine Le Pen has in part financed her campaign through loans from Russian banks, and has said that there was “no Russian invasion of Crimea” and “no Russian wrongdoing”. This is in stark contrast with the UK’s official position that Russia “engaged in direct aggression on a neighbouring country”. Such a contradictory stance on a key issue could cause significant damage to successful UK-France collaboration on the international stage, in this case undermining UK efforts to ensure Ukrainian sovereignty in the region of Crimea.

An immediate concern for many in the UK might be the possibility of a France-Russia (and potentially) US alliance. Le Pen could indeed make this a reality, but an important lesson to be drawn from recent world events is that many of the current world “alliances” are extremely volatile. Just like US-Russia relations have experienced a rollercoaster few months, it is highly possible that Le Pen’s aspirations for France-Russia relations could be obstructed by other actors, domestic or international.

A Le Pen presidency would leave the UK faced with a balancing act of avoiding “guilt by association” with a government that doesn’t share all our key British values, and securing the necessary partnerships that allow the UK to be prosperous and safe. Up to now, the UK has stuck firmly with the former. Current British Ambassador to France, Lord Llewellyn, was asked by the Foreign Affairs Committee in January 2017 about what would happen in the case of a Le Pen presidency, his answer was simply: “That (no engagement) is the policy. That has been the policy for many years”. As he subsequently said, it is indeed “a matter for Ministers” that will undoubtedly require revisiting. Not having done so sooner could prove costly. Already, with important states such as the US, Russia, and Turkey to name a few, the UK is increasingly finding itself in the difficult position of working towards good relations with leaders and parties that on many fronts it categorically and fundamentally disagrees with. In many ways, a Le Pen presidency would epitomise this trend, making it all the more crucial that the UK strike the right balance.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Edward Elliott

Edward Elliott is Research & Operations Manager at the British Foreign Policy Group. He is a graduate in politics, international relations, French, and law, having studied at Durham University and Sciences Po. Fluent in Spanish as well as French, he has worked in France, Spain, England, and Slovakia before joining the BFPG as a researcher and helping establish the organisation.