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Why Theresa May Called For An Early U.K. Election


It's election time on both sides of the English Channel. France votes for president on Sunday and British Prime Minister Theresa May has now called a snap election for her country in June. The French head to the polls first, of course. NPR's Frank Langfitt is covering both elections.

Hi there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Which side of the channel are you on today?

LANGFITT: It's a great question. I'm in Paris today. To put this in some perspective, I flew in from Washington yesterday morning, saw that Theresa May had called for the snap election. One of the editors at NPR, actually, was thinking of putting me on the Eurostar back to London.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: That is a sense of where we are politically right now in Western Europe. It's hard to cover all the stories with what's happening sort of simultaneously.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's just start with where you are then, since we have to start somewhere. What are you hearing in Paris?

LANGFITT: I was on the Place de la Republique today, and I was talking to people who are supporting Emmanuel Macron. He's basically an independent candidate. He just started his own party, which gives you a sense - he's been doing very well in the polls - but gives you a sense of how kind of the political landscape has been upended here in France. He's a strong supporter of the European Union.

And his supporters basically see themselves not just in a vote here in France but as a way to send a message to sort of halt the populist waves that we've seen in the U.S. with the Trump vote and U.K. with the Brexit vote to leave the European Union. They're very, very interested in keeping France in the EU. And that's a big issue for them. And they see this as sending a message to the world, basically in favor of globalization.

INSKEEP: And of course, Marine Le Pen, the National Front candidate, one of the other candidates, has a very different view of globalization, which leads to this next question, Frank. Is there a common issue between the election in France and the election across the channel in Britain?

LANGFITT: Well, you're exactly right. Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen are totally at odds. And this is really about globalization and the future of Europe. And you see, you know, in Theresa May calling this election, she is looking for a big win in June so it will give her a stronger hand in negotiating leaving the EU. Here in France, Marine Le Pen would love to hold the same kind of Brexit referendum. It would be called a Frexit (ph) referendum here, to leave the EU.

And the bigger picture here is that, you know, Britain leaving the EU, it definitely wounds the European Union. If France were to leave, most people think the EU would fall apart. And to put this, again, in perspective for Americans, the EU has helped keep peace for decades here. It's created a lot of prosperity. But it's also created a lot of bureaucracy, has a lot of critics. And it's also - it created a large influx of immigrants, which has upset people. They feel that their towns in Britain, here also in France, have been changing a lot. And the stakes are really, really big.

INSKEEP: Frank, I want to ask about Theresa May's decision to call this very, very early election. She does seem to be far ahead in polls. Perhaps she feels she knows what the result is going to be, that she'll get the strong mandate to go ahead and negotiate Brexit. But polling is notoriously bad in Britain, and it's been so unpredictable lately around the world. Is she really sure she knows what she's doing here?

LANGFITT: She seems to be or she wouldn't be doing this. I think it's an interesting thing. She - you've got to remember, she doesn't have a popular mandate. She was not elected as prime minister. She ended up as prime minister after David Cameron resigned after the Brexit vote went the wrong way. And so she's looking for more support in Parliament so she can drive just a harder deal and feel like she has a freer hand.

So she must be convinced that she can win this. The other thing is, the Labor Party is in the worse shape anybody's seen it in decades - very weak leadership, and sort of - I think this is certainly kind of a political opportunism. She sees an opening here, and she wants to take it. Again, two months - it's been a very unpredictable year in electoral politics in the states and also here in Europe.

INSKEEP: The Labor Party, of course, the main opposition party there in Britain. Frank, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt, now covering elections in both Britain and France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.