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Elections in France and South Korea: What do they tell us?

May 16, 2017

On Sunday, May 7th, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron handily defeated far-right Marine Le-Pen in the French presidential election. Two days later, in another decisive victory, Jae-In Moon, a former human rights lawyer, won the South Korean presidential election by a wide margin and was chosen as a successor to former President Park who was impeached earlier in March.


 Both elections signaled unprecedented, almost revolutionary transitions of power: Macron, a young candidate with limited experience in public office, defeated first the two major mainstream parties then the populist, far-right, nationalist Le-Pen. In Korea,liberal candidate Moon was elected to fill the current political void (created by Park’s impeachment) after 10 years of conservative rule.


 The world took notice of the two elections, as their results would greatly impact the respective countries’ domestic policies as well as their roles in the world, specifically in international conflict. The newly elected presidents of the two countries, Macron and Moon, both have notably different stances from their countries’ previous governments and thus promised the public with agenda for change. The two elections are highly interesting as they not only highlight greater global issues but also can potentially shape the future of the two nations and even the world.


 The French presidential election was reflective of broader tensions prevalent in Western democracies today. Macron’s campaign has been viewed as improbable: his political movement, “En Marche!” was set up only in April 2016, and neither his party nor himself had ever taken part in an election for public office. Because of his lack of experience, his victory over the two major parties, the mainstream right and the mainstream left, was viewed as a shocking triumph over the establishment, a break from the traditional model of French government. His victory certainly reflected the French public’s resentment towards the establishment.


 Macron, a pro-EU, pro-globalization, pro-liberal economic reform centrist, then competed with Marine Le-Pen, an anti-EU, anti-immigrants, nationalist far-right candidate. Le-Pen was no stranger to the world: her message was part of the same populist wave that enabled the Brexit movement and brought Donald Trump into the White House. The areas the two candidates contested over mirrored broader debates occurring around the Western world: immigration, European integration, and economic reform. The French political climate has been polarized and much divided for quite awhile, so the rest of the world nervously looked to the result of the election as an indicator of both what the voters the future direction France would take.


 The outcome of the election thus has largely been viewed as the French voters’ rejection of Le-Pen’s far-right platform, their hope for more transparency and economic stability, and their desire to do away with the establishment. Macron vowed to fight corruption and political divisions within France, increase national security measures, and readjust relations with the EU and Germany. Perhaps the largest difference he pledged to make is in the French economy. He aims to boost investment and “set up a ‘new growth model’ that is both good for social mobility and the environment” There are high hopes and, of course, doubts about the change Macron could create in France, but the election of Macron, a political newbie, is more or less seen as refreshing.


 Moon’s victory in the South Korean presidential election was no less remarkable.To begin with, the transition to rule by liberal Democratic Party of Korea after 10 years of conservative rule by Liberty Korean party in and of itself is significant. The shift in power was perhaps foreseeable, given the public’s distrust of the conservative party and desire for reform which intensified as a result of the former president’s impeachment. The people hoped for a president with more integrity and accountability.

 Some crucial issues that were at the center of the election include national security, growing conflict with North Korea, diplomatic directions regarding China and the U.S, high youth unemployment, slow economic growth, and income inequality.


 President Moon vowed to “create a government most feared by North Korea, most trusted by the United States and most reliable for China.” He supports Korea’s military alliance with the United States but hopes for more diplomatic balance between the U.S and China. He has previously argued that South Korea “should learn how to say no to America.” He disagrees with the approaches his predecessors had taken with regards to North Korea and believes “sanctions alone will not end the North’s nuclear weapons program.” He seeks for dialogue with the North, a strategy that conflicts with Trump’s. There is certainly doubt expressed by some people as to how effective his policies would be, as well as fear that the potential rift between Moon and Trump might hurt South Korea.


 In terms of economic policies, Moon vowed to cut collusive ties between the government and big corporations, raise minimum wage, create “810,000 public sector jobs”, subsidize living expenses for the youth seeking employment, and deal with skyrocketing household debts. Some express concern for how much of the proposed reforms can realistically take place.


 He also proposed to undo a lot of controversial actions his predecessors had taken. He promised to terminate the production of nationalized history textbooks the conservatives had pushed for and reject the comfort women deal with Japan which the Korean public was largely unhappy about. Within the first few days as president, Moon already began to take action regarding these promises and challenged the Japanese leader about the deal. His adherence to his proposed policies, in part, has already gained Moon public trust and optimism about the future, while some certainly do remain skeptical.


 The elections in France and South Korea both convey an important message: that the citizens are discontent with the current state of affairs and hope for real change. The elections of Macron and Moon are viewed optimistically in this regard, as they are both candidates whose platforms are based on reform and change for the people. While it is definitely too early to anticipate a positive result, it will be interesting to see the difference these newly elected presidents will make in their respective countries. The two elections might potentially signal a new beginning for the two countries.


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