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Bachar Halabi

France's presidential candidates on Arab world affairs

The French presidential candidates go head to head in a TV debate [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 April, 2017

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This Sunday's first round of France's presidential election will send the top two candidates through to the run-off on 7th May. Here's our round-up of French voters' choices.

Sunday's first round of the French presidential election is rapidly approaching. What seemed to be a guaranteed second round showdown between the far-right National Front Leader Le Pen, and the independent Macron, has been rocked by the entrance of far-left contender in something of a bolt from the blue.

For Jean-Luc Melenchon - head of the far-left "France Insoumise" (Unsubmissive France) coalition which is backed by the French Communist Party - the first presidential debate (watched by 47 percent of the audience share on TF1) was a game-changer, and saw him dubbed the second most convincing candidate after Macron.

The latest poll from PresiTrack puts the top four candidates within a four point margin of each other. With the dynamics of global politics changing at record speed, and Brexit and the Trump administration in the rearview mirror, this French presidential election has become one of extreme importance to the European Union and beyond.

Here we take a look at the top five candidates, and their stance on Arab world affairs.

Jean-Luc Melenchon

Melenchon has been highly critical of Israel and vocal in his support of the Palestinian cause.

He deviated from the establishment's pro-Israel unanimity, by pledging to immediately recognise Palestine as a state according to the 1967 borders, while backing the two-state solution and the Palestinians' "right of return".

He also pledges to cancel the 2010 justice ministry's memorandum, instructing prosecutors to crack down on BDS activists.

Melenchon has been highly critical of Israel and vocal in his support of the Palestinian cause

Melenchon denounced the US retaliatory strikes on the Shayrat airbase in Syria as "a criminal, irresponsible act", describing them as "huge mistake" that would stirrup further tension.

His Trotskyite anti-imperialist nature has led him to cast doubt on accounts of Assad being behind the deadly chemical attack in Idlib, and talk of a "gas pipes" conspiracy theory, rather than acknowledging the legitimacy of the Syrian revolution of 2011.

The far-leftists consistently paid condolences to refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean, but have failed to offer an alternative to France's current immigration policy.

Emmanuel Macron

On 9 April, and in an interview with France's Jewish community Radio J station in Paris, Macron broke with the government policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claiming that a unilateral recognition, by the French government, of the state of Palestine "would not serve anyone" and would "create instability".

Macron said, "[T]he key is recognising two states in the area, with diplomatic balanced work to build peace. If France commits to unilateral recognition of Palestine, we are contributing to an imbalance and will weaken France's ability to play a role in regional stability and in this conflict."

Macron has also been vocal on his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, slamming the BDS march that happened in Paris earlier this month.

Macron has taken a firm stance against Assad playing any role in Syria's political future

Nevertheless, he considered Netanyahu's policy on settlements "unhelpful" because it contradicts his view for the need to pacify the conflict before finding a plausible solution.

In regards to the Syrian turmoil, Macron has taken a firm stance against President Assad playing any role in Syria's political future. Moreover, in an interview on France 2 television on 6 April, he called for military intervention against Assad if his government was found to have carried out a chemical attack that killed at least 70 people on 4 April.

Macron made his stance on the hijab issue clear when he opposed Manuel Valls' call for a ban on headscarves in universities. Macron insisted, "Secularism is not a battle against religion, mainly used against Islam. Secularism protects identities and ensures no one is under house arrest because of his/her identity."

Macron favours strong external EU borders and a united European policy, so countries such as Greece are not disproportionately affected by refugee influx, and remains firm on his position in support of immigration.

Marine Le Pen

Le Pen has a very heavy legacy to deal with when it comes to French Jewish voters in the first place. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, famously minimised the Holocaust during his own political rise, and for years, Marine has been attempting to distance herself from her father's views.

But her recent comments in which she denied France's complicity for the 1942 round-up of 13,000 Jews to Nazi death camps served as a wake-up call to a rhetoric that might await French Jews if she makes her way to the Elysee.

Le Pen believes that her open hostility to the Muslim-French community and her promises to crackdown on immigration will curry favour among the Jewish community

Le Pen also believes that Jews will have to choose which nationality to retain, whether it be the French or the Israeli, as she seeks to eliminate dual citizenship with non-European countries as a campaign promise.

Le Pen's main focus remains on French sovereignty, and she believes that her open hostility to the Muslim-French community and her promises to crackdown on immigration, will curry favour among the Jewish community.

An Assad apologist, who back in February after meeting Lebanese PM Saad Hariri in Beirut said, "President Bashar Assad the most reassuring solution for France," has expressed criticism towards Trump's recent strike on Syrian government-held airbase.

She has repeatedly, and unhelpfully drawn parallels between an intervention in Syria, and a repeat of events in Iraq and Libya, which has only served to further the goals of extremist organisations.

With Le Pen recently falling from first place in the polls, she vowed during her most recent rally to suspend all immigration and shield voters from "savage globalisation". "I will protect you. My first measure as president will be to reinstate France's borders," Le Pen said.

Francois Fillon

In March 2016, Fillon reiterated the French position vis-a-vis its ally Israel, which is entitled to security and whose existence cannot be challenged. But Fillon remained adamant on Palestinians' right to a state, through negotiations of a peace process that includes cooperation with the EU, UN and the US.

The former prime minister wants to introduce a quota limiting the number of immigrants entering France each year

In November 2015, following the Paris terror attacks, Fillon declared that he was in favour of a "global coalition" to fight against the Islamic State (IS) which would include Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian governments, Kurdish movements and Hizballah, whose senior officials he met in July 2013.

Fillon had previously wanted a direct dialogue with Assad, considering him part of the "solution" in Syria. However, his stance has changed significantly, calling Assad a dictator, a manipulator, most recently stating that Assad cannot stay if proof materialises he orchestrated last week's chemical attacks.

The former prime minister wants to introduce a quota limiting the number of immigrants entering France each year, and he urges Muslims, mainly French ones, to do more to in face of hardline/radical groups.

Benoit Hamon

After beating former Prime Minister Manuel Valls into second place in the Socialist Party presidential primary, and securing an alliance with the French Green Party, Benoit Hamon became the party's candidate for president

Hamon is considered a veteran supporter of the Palestinian cause. Since his firm stance against Israel's 2010 raid of the humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza, in which he accused the state of Israel of committing a "bloodbath," Hamon has repeatedly called for French recognition of the state of Palestine.

Hamon is considered a veteran supporter of the Palestinian cause

Even as a presidential candidate, he reiterated this call while continuously criticising what he considers an "Israeli colonisation" of Palestinian territories.

Hamon was also among the harshest critics of the visit by three French lawmakers to Damascus back in January. He expressed disbelief that some people in France still try to find excuses for Syrian president Assad.

During the presidential debates Hamon continuously accused Le Pen, Fillon, and Melenchon of siding with Assad, who deliberately used chemical weapons to kill his people.

Hamon has condemned the prevailing rhetoric on the role of Islam in French society, and after the burkini scandal last year, Hamon said "It is unacceptable that we continue to make the faith of millions of our compatriots a problem in the Republic."

He also wants to see refugees receive free French lessons, and be granted the right to work shortly after arriving to France, in a policy he envisions will help integration in French society.

Bachar El-Halabi is currently pursuing a second MA in political science at the L'École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He also holds an LLM in International Law, and Bachelors in Engineering and Political Science from AUB.

Follow him on Twitter: @BacharZhalabi

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