Macron vs Le Pen: how the next French president will tackle international development

Raphaelle Faure
27 April 2017
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Emmanuel Macron, candidate of the En Marche! movement, after the conference Place de la Sante in Paris, France, 2017. ©FNMF/N. MERGUI

This week’s Economist described French presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen as ‘the only two candidates with no position in common’. Looking closely at their proposed aid policies, this holds true.

The main development organisations in France have ranked the candidates weekly according to their latest policy announcements. Macron ranked third on development aid before the first round of the elections, closely behind the now disqualified candidates Hamon and Mélenchon, who both scored a perfect 10 out of 10.

These same organisations refused to rate Le Pen, on the basis that her proposed policies don’t actually comply with all international treaties France has ratified.

So which of the two remaining candidates would make the most development-friendly president come 7 May? Having analysed their policies, here’s why a Macron presidency would be a better outcome for global development.

1. Continued – even strengthened – multilateral engagement

The biggest difference between the two candidates is their vision of France’s role on the international scene. While Le Pen has joined the chorus of ‘my country first’ following the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election in the US, Macron wants to see France renew its engagement and influence internationally, and in the EU in particular.

France is the EU’s third largest donor and already an influential player in European development policy; Brexit could offer France the opportunity to regain its status as the key EU player in this field and to push its vision for development cooperation forward. Continued EU engagement also means keeping the benefits of this membership, from the economies of scale made by pooling member states’ resources to improving aid effectiveness with coordinated action.

A Macron presidency would harness those opportunities and likely lead to a closer alignment of the EU aid programme with his priorities. This would include a focus on francophone African countries, especially the Sahel, a region made up of the poorest countries in the world with some of the most serious development challenges: from climate change, security and humanitarian emergencies, to a youth bulge that could contribute to major  instability if there aren't enough jobs for everyone entering the labour market.

A sectoral focus on education, employment and the development of the private sector in those countries are central to Macron’s vision for tackling these issues, according to his spokesperson on development issues Jean-Michel Severino.

Conversely, Le Pen’s bid for the presidency, which hinges on repatriating powers from Brussels and ‘giving France its sovereignty back’, would result in a disengagement from the EU aid programme, as well as other multilateral instruments, and a focus on a narrower bilateral programme. This would risk diverting aid toward security and defence considerations, which are clearly among her three priorities for development cooperation.

2. Aid aimed at those who need it most

One of the greatest issues at stake in this election is how closely French aid will be tied to concerns of migration and security.

Macron, unlike Le Pen, does not support a development policy that makes aid contingent on the return of migrants or on recipient countries buying French products. While he doesn’t rule out taking the economic interests of France into consideration when it comes to aid, he does call for aid to be spent in the poorest countries and on the poorest and most vulnerable people. This is in line with the Sustainable Development Goals’ objective of leaving no one behind.

Macron has committed to spending 0.7% of France’s gross national income on aid by 2030 with the caveat that this will depend on the country’s economic performance. Meanwhile Le Pen pledged to spend that 0.7% on international development by 2022 – but that would include some security and defence spending not covered under official development assistance and potentially diverting aid money toward domestic security aims.

3. Aid used to create new opportunities, not as a barricade

Macron’s priorities are wide-ranging, reflecting the complex development landscape. His geographic focus includes sub-Saharan Africa, the Sahel, the Maghreb, countries in crisis and francophone countries. In terms of sectors, his manifesto identifies education, health, women’s rights and sustainable development as his priorities. He touches on instruments of aid delivery, going a step further than Le Pen, and calls for a rethink of the balance between grants and loans in favour of the former and a greater mobilisation of private funding to finance infrastructure and small and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries.

Macron also proposes to revise the French legislation on aid in consultation with actors from developing countries and France working in this field.

Le Pen’s manifesto goes into less detail and identifies Africa as her geographical focus while setting out primary education, agriculture and defence and security as her sectoral priorities. In an interview about her vision for Africa, she clearly puts the emphasis on defence and security, listing the challenges raised by poverty as: ‘security troubles, religious radicalisation, terrorism and inter-community conflicts’. She also justifies meeting the 0.7% aid target as a ‘condition for the national security’ and describes aid more generally as ‘the only effective bulwark against the threats of mass migration and terrorism’.

This isn’t the time for France to look inward

I will be honest and admit that I was pleasantly surprised to find an objective dedicated to development cooperation in the Front National’s manifesto. I would have expected them to call for French aid to focus on humanitarian assistance only and to repatriate the rest of the money to be spent at home as most far right parties do. That said, a closer look reveals that Marine Le Pen’s primary motive for aid spending remains France’s security rather than improving the lives of those living in poverty.

At the same time it would be naïve to claim that Emmanuel Macron has a purely altruistic approach to aid; he clearly wants to find win-win situations benefiting all parties where he can. However, his call for renewed engagement at the multilateral level and cooperation with other states is refreshing in a widespread climate of retreat into nationalism.

Raphaelle Faure