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French Presidential Candidates Offer Radically Different Solutions To Fix Economy


France's most important presidential election in decades happens on Sunday. The country's stagnant economy is a big factor. The two candidates, centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, offer radically different solutions. It's a debate about protectionism and globalization that has echoes of last year's Brexit vote in the U.K. and the U.S. presidential race. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Paris.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Marine Le Pen intends to put France first. She wants to dump the euro, return to the franc, France's old currency, and re-establish her country's borders. At a March rally in the northern city of Lille, she promised the French a vote on quitting the European Union.


MARINE LE PEN: (Through interpreter) The euro didn't bring the prosperity and purchasing power its promoters sold us. Elected, I will submit this question to the French in a referendum. They will have the last word.

LANGFITT: By contrast, Macron, a former investment banker, is a staunch defender of the EU and, like Hillary Clinton, an avowed free trader. In an April debate, Macron, who previously served as economy minister, said Le Pen's policies would do a lot of damage.


EMMANUEL MACRON: (Through interpreter) What you propose, Madame Le Pen, will actually lower purchasing power of the French, leaving the euro would lower the purchasing power of workers. What you propose is economic war.

LANGFITT: Like President Trump, Le Pen is an economic nationalist who casts herself as a champion of the working class. Last month, she visited a Whirlpool factory that's moving to Poland. She told workers she might go as far as putting the factory under temporary state protection to save hundreds of French jobs. Jobs are a huge issue in France, where the youth unemployment rate is a staggering 23 percent. Lucas Capert worries a lot about employment. I met him on a train platform in Lille, near the Belgian border. He's 19 and earns just $13,000 a year working in a small-town call center. Capert hopes Le Pen's policies help raise wages.

LUCAS CAPERT: (Through interpreter) I finished high school a year ago, and it took me a year to find a job. I sent at least 10 applications a week.

LANGFITT: If you could speak to Marine Le Pen now about jobs, what would you say to her?

CAPERT: (Through interpreter) I would like to know which sector she's going to help the most - industry, commercial and sales or services and administration. I would orient myself more towards what she says.

JEAN MONTAGNE: I think economically, it's clear that Macron is a much better pick than Le Pen.

LANGFITT: This is Jean Montagne, a 22-year-old student. We met more than 100 miles south of Lille in central Paris where Montagne attends ESCP, one of France's leading business schools.

MONTAGNE: There is a culture in France of protectionism, of - the state can do things for us; the state can make our lives better. It's quite embedded in people's minds. But in itself, it doesn't work. It's never worked.

JULIETTE PAGES: It's my last year of studies, and I'm really worried about what I'm going to do afterward.

LANGFITT: Juliette Pages is a fellow student at ESCP. She says rigid labor policies make it harder for new grads to find work. Pages likes Macron's proposals to shake up the ossified labor market, which include reducing how much firms have to pay in severance.

PAGES: If it was easier for them to fire people, maybe they would hire more and just, like, give them - give us a try and - us young people.

LANGFITT: Xavier Ragot says Le Pen doesn't attract sharp business students like Pages but those who are struggling. Ragot runs the French Economic Observatory, a publicly funded think tank.

XAVIER RAGOT: People who lost a lot in the previous years were voting for Marine Le Pen. So we have to help those people to benefit from the recovery, to convince that we do not need to destroy everything to help the French economy.

LANGFITT: People around the world will focus here as the returns come in Sunday night to see what kind of an economy and what sort of country the French people choose. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Lille, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.