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The Stakes In France's Presidential Election


America has just went through an experience similar to France. It's an election campaign punctuated by occasional episodes of political violence. In the United States last year, it was a series of shootings, including some by people who claimed allegiance to ISIS. In France, the last incident came in the center of Paris. Down the avenue from the Arc de Triomphe, a gunman killed a police officer before police killed him. It all happened just before a presidential election weekend that NPR's Frank Langfitt is covering in Paris. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's it like walking around Paris right now?

LANGFITT: Well, it's really interesting. As you point out, this is something that the United States has gone through but Paris has gone through even more. We've had these big attacks in the last two years. This is just the latest and much smaller. I was out last night at a bar doing - working on another story. And the bartender said, hey, did you hear the news? And, you know, we all read our phones. And then a lot of people just went back, frankly, to drinking and talking about other things. So I think that, obviously, this is a terrible thing. And it was right near the Arc de Triomphe. But at the same time, it's something that people in Paris have gotten, frankly - it's sad to say - more used to.

INSKEEP: Now, you say talking of other things. Are they still talking about the presidential election? Is this the No. 1 topic of conversation in France?

LANGFITT: Yeah. It's very easy to get people to talk about here. Everybody's talking about it. A tremendous number of people, though, actually don't know how they're going to vote. And some people I talked to you last night may not even vote at all.

INSKEEP: OK. So here's the question. If you are ISIS and you stage an attack like this - and we don't really know that they staged it; we know they claimed credit for it - but if you're ISIS...

LANGFITT: Right. We don't know that, yeah.

INSKEEP: If you're ISIS and you're staging an attack, your purpose presumably would be to, in some way, influence the voting that follows. So that raises the question, does this actually affect how people are going to vote?

LANGFITT: Well, so I went out this morning, Steve, to the rail station in Montparnasse. And I talked to at least a dozen people. And I heard pretty much the same thing. This is just sort of what you hear on the street, conventional wisdom. I was talking to - with this CFO from a telecom company. His name is George Bakell (ph). And here's the way he saw it.

GEORGE BAKELL: People would massively vote for those candidates who are for security, against immigration and all that. And those two candidates are Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon.

INSKEEP: Would you just remind us why he would presume that people would vote for...


INSKEEP: ...Le Pen because of a terror attack?

LANGFITT: Well, first, Fillon - he's kind of a traditional Republican. And he's kind of a traditional - he's tough on security. But Le Pen is the one everybody here talks about. She is - it's fair to say - anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim. She also would like to leave the European Union. And people - some people at the rail station today - most of them thought that this would give her a boost in what's now an incredibly tight four-way race.

INSKEEP: And do people agree that an attack like this would be good for Le Pen?

LANGFITT: Well, so when I get back from the rail station, I get these callbacks from political scientists I've been talking to, analysts. And their take was very different from what you just heard from George. And they said kind of what I was hearing in the bar, or at least seeing in the bar last night, which is people are kind of used to this. They've already put it into their calculations.

Also, they know Le Pen very well. And she's seen as very radical politically and not necessarily somebody who has a steady hand. So maybe this could help some other candidates who have more experience. So I was talking this morning with Thomas Ginoulei (ph). He studies voting behavior at Sciences Po; it's a top university here. And he had this really blunt assessment when we were talking.

THOMAS GINOULEI: Who is stupid enough to change his or her vote because some guy decided to shoot a policeman and tried to shoot other policemen and a civilian?

LANGFITT: And so what Thomas is kind of saying here, Steve, is if there's a strategy here, he does not think it's going to work.

INSKEEP: So Frank, help us step back here. This was a dramatic election far, far before this shooting this week. People have described it as being an election in which the future of Europe is at stake. You've been talking with voters in France. What are the stakes as French voters see them?

LANGFITT: Well, the way they see it is - you know, it's interesting. Terrorism has not been a big issue in this. It's really - there's chronic high unemployment here. There's loss of jobs due to globalization. Immigration is an issue, integrating Muslims. There's tons of corruption. And I think a lot of people here see it as something that - a turning point for France. What kind of a country is it going to be? Is it going to be more open, or is it going to do what we've seen in the United Kingdom with a vote to leave the EU and, to some degree with the Trump win, kind of backing away from the world?

INSKEEP: Le Pen made news just in the last couple of days by saying, we don't want to turn the entire country into a giant railway station, a transit center for refugees, effectively, was what she was saying. But there is another point of view voiced by other candidates like Macron, the very young upstart candidate. What is the other point of view that's out there?

LANGFITT: Well, the other point of view - it's really, you know, if you're going to really step back from this, this is about the future of the West and what kind of countries the West are going to look like. Are they going to be a place that welcomes everybody? Is this going to be a place where people can go and work in different countries? Is it going to be kind of the liberal Western order? Or is it going to be much more nationalistic and much more defensive? And so there are two very big competing ideas. And we're going to find out on Sunday who makes it to the next round and which of these ideas seems to be in ascendance.

INSKEEP: And thanks for that reminder. The most likely result here, I guess, is you have two candidates, neither of whom have 50 percent and they go on to the next round of the election. Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 21, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
Earlier audio versions of this report characterized President Trump's views as being "anti-immigrant" and "anti-Muslim." It is more accurate to say he is seeking to shut off illegal immigration and that he has vowed to fight "radical Islamic terrorism."
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.