As France enters the final week of its presidential election campaign, the stakes couldn’t be higher. If Emmanuel Macron wins, he will be the first French president to be re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002. With a new mandate, Macron will be in a strong position to push forward his ambitious plans for France and the EU.
But if Marine Le Pen wins, it will be a political earthquake to rival Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016. Victory for a staunch nationalist and eurosceptic would cast doubt on the future of the EU. Le Pen’s agenda on immigration and Islam would also threaten social stability in France.
Twenty years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the far-right National Front, won less than 18% of the vote in the last round of the presidential election. A generation later, his daughter, Marine, is within reach of the presidency – polls suggest she will win the support of at least 45% of voters. The televised debate between Macron and Le Pen on Wednesday will be crucial, and could further alter the dynamics of the race.
That Le Pen is doing so well speaks both to the radicalization of the French electorate and to his own successful attempts to soften his image. In the first round of voting on April 10, some 57% of French voters opted for far-right or far-left candidates.
These days, Le Pen rejects the “extreme right” label. Like Macron, she insists she is neither left nor right. In her campaign, she deftly focused on the economy and the cost of living – casting herself as the candidate of struggling French workers and Macron as the champion of an out-of-touch metropolitan elite.
Le Pen also softened his personal and political style. She smiles a lot, speaks calmly and has mastered the art of sounding reasonable.
In reality, however, Le Pen’s national and international agenda remains radical, dangerous and internally inconsistent. It is Macron’s task, over the crucial week ahead, to expose these flaws.
The French president should in particular be ruthless by linking his opponent to Vladimir Putin. Le Pen insists she has only met the Russian president once and that her party was forced to borrow money from a Russian bank in 2014 because he was shunned by institutions French finance. In reality, there are old ideological ties between Le Pen and Putin. As recently as 2017, she cited the Russian president as an example of her approach to politics.
Le Pen’s domestic and international policies are also riddled with contradictions. At home, she offers a classic populist mix of higher spending, lower taxes and early retirement, combined with protectionism and restrictions on foreign labour. This mix of policies would hurt the very workers she claims to be defending.
A key element in softening Le Pen’s image has been adopting a more emollient approach to the EU. Today, she is no longer a supporter of Frexit. But his insistence that French law take precedence over European law would amount to Frexit by any other name. National preference policies for French workers and industry, if imposed, are also clearly incompatible with membership of the EU single market. Le Pen refuses to recognize the logical consequences of her political commitments, so Macron has to corner her.
The French president was slow to start his campaign in earnest. He must use this crucial last week wisely.