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Mérand: Why the French presidential election is so important

A victory for Marine Le Pen would mean a freeze or a setback in European integration. It would also be the biggest crack yet in Western unity vis-à-vis Russia.

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There is a French expression that is difficult to translate: “la politique du pire”. It means getting things done by making things worse.

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“The politics of the worst” describes the temptation of the French left in the second round which will determine, this Sunday, who will be the president of the second economy of the European Union and our close ally in NATO.

Leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, third runner-up in the first round, called on his supporters not to vote for Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate who will face Emmanuel Macron in the second round. But he explicitly refuses to endorse the outgoing president.

Mélenchon is ambiguous because his electoral base is divided: if 40% say they vote for Macron in the second round, 30% will abstain and 30%… may vote for Le Pen. Twenty years after Le Pen’s father first stunned the world by fleeing (and dramatically losing) to Jacques Chirac, the argument that progressive voters should always side with a center candidate -right begins to wear out.

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Because the so-called republican front is fleeing, the National Rally (ex-National Front) has never been so close to seizing the Elysée. The polls attribute to Le Pen between 45% and 51% of the voting intentions. The Economist gives him a 13% chance of winning the election. Not really close, but too close for comfort.

What if Le Pen won?

Le Pen’s victory would be a decisive turning point for France, for Europe and for NATO.

If Le Pen becomes president, her party would be in a better position than ever to win the June legislative elections, giving her the leeway to implement her far-right agenda. True to her “de-demonization” strategy, Le Pen refrained from using anti-Semitic and racist slurs. But her domestic schedule hasn’t changed much since her father’s time. Offenders born abroad must be expelled from France. Social benefits must be reserved for French citizens. The rule of law must be mastered to make way for “popular sovereignty”.

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President Le Pen would also mean a freeze on European integration, if not a step back. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will agree to nothing with Le Pen, who in turn would veto the European Union’s ambitious economic and environmental agenda. She no longer wants to leave the euro but, like the ultra-conservative government in Poland and Viktor Orban in Hungary, she supports the primacy of national law over European law.

Le Pen’s victory would also be the biggest crack yet in the West’s collective resolve vis-à-vis Russia. Although she distanced herself from Vladimir Putin during the campaign, Le Pen says Ukraine should make most of the concessions demanded by the Kremlin. She also argues that France should partially withdraw from NATO, returning to a pre-2009 Gaullist dogma.

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Why is Le Pen so close?

If Marine Le Pen performed so well in the first round, it is partly because Eric Zemmour, her far-right rival, did so poorly. Compared to the racist Brandon, and having significantly softened her tone on the EU, she came across as moderate and stateswoman-like.

Le Pen also ran on social issues, promising to roll back Macron’s liberal reforms. And it paid off. For a while, his party has long been the most popular option among working-class voters.

Even if Macron wins, the fact that he is closely followed by Le Pen, whom he beat 66% against 34% in 2017, is tantamount to failure. Promising to raise the retirement age in a country traumatized by liberalism may have cannibalized centre-right votes, but it turned out to be a risky strategy. Especially when his current policy is not as liberal as he has often made it sound.

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Le Pen’s success can also be attributed to the left. The progressive camp presented no less than six equally uninspiring candidates. Collectively, they obtained 32% of the popular vote in the first round. From the Socialists to the Greens, all parties except that of Mélenchon are now irrelevant. Divided, they fell.

But the main reason Le Pen has a chance of becoming France’s next president is that the far right is genuinely strong, and growing stronger, amid a growing challenge to representative politics.

In France, as in many other Western democracies, from Italy to the United States, a large part of the population adheres to authoritarian, xenophobic or anti-establishment opinions. This also means young people: in France, 26% of 18-24 year olds voted for Le Pen. This is less than their votes for Mélenchon but even less abstention, at 42%.

So yes, things can get worse.

Frederic Merand is a full professor of political science and scientific director of CÉRIUM, the Center for International Studies at the University of Montreal.

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