For undecided French voters tempted to back the far-right populist Marine Le Pen in next Sunday’s presidential election, the situation resembles a midlife crisis. They’re fed up with the same old, same old – the boss is a pain and the bills keep on rising. How great it would be to throw it all up, escape the system, buy a smallholding somewhere and grow veg.
In the end, most people decide against so drastic a break with all that is familiar and secure, however unsatisfactory their present circumstances. That’s what France’s friends and neighbours must hope will happen when Le Pen faces the centrist incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, in the second round run-off. Macron, though unpopular, represents continuity. Le Pen is the candidate of chaos.
Just how truly anarchic a Le Pen presidency could be was laid bare last week when the candidate for the National Rally (formerly the National Front) outlined her “vision” of France’s place in the world. Like Donald Trump in 2016, Le Pen’s stress is on tearing down, not building up. She knows what she doesn’t like. But she’s recklessly vague about what replaces that she would destroy.
The EU is a particular target. Contradicting past positions, Le Pen no longer wants to leave the EU or the eurozone. But her proposed referendum on a new “France-first” law giving French citizens priority in employment, welfare benefits and public housing, and asserting the primacy of national over European law, amounts to “Frexit” by any other name.
Le Pen’s plans to curb immigration by re-establishing national border controls, unilaterally cut EU budget contributions and slash taxes on essential goods and fuel also breach France’s legal obligations. Such policies risk a deeply existential crisis within the EU, of which France, along with Germany, is a founding member.
Franco-German cooperation, the fabled “motor” that keeps Europe running, would splutter to a halt if Le Pen has her way. Pointing to “irreconcilable strategic differences”, she rejected the “discreet and clever hegemony” pursued by Angela Merkel. Germany’s former chancellor, she claimed, had tried to subvert French sovereignty, weaken its identity and undercut its defence and nuclear industries.
Attempting a grotesque balancing act, Le Pen said she would seek “strategic rapprochement” with Russia, her party’s former backer, once the Ukraine war was over and distance France from the US by withdrawing from Nato’s military command. At the same time, she scorned Macron’s ideas about European defence autonomy. A “non-aligned” France, she said, would go its own way, pursuing the global “grandeur” that was its historical mission.
Were she to gain power, Le Pen’s geopolitical wrecking ball would be disastrous for Britain and the west. The democratic majority among UN security council permanent members would be in doubt. With France on board, rightwing nationalist-populists in Italy, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere would be encouraged to press their divisive, xenophobic, pan-European agendas.
The struggle for western values in the teeth of Russian and Chinese authoritarianism, and for the international rules-based order, could be forfeited. Cooperative efforts to combat the climate crisis might founder. At home, intolerance, racism and institutionalised Islamophobia would reign… the nightmare possibilities are endless. Yet now, as Sunday’s sudden death showdown looms, they are coming into much-needed, sharper focus.
It is no longer possible to ignore or minimise the truly destructive horror of Le Pen’s twisted idea of France. Surely this will concentrate wavering and disaffected voters’ minds – and arouse them at last from iconoclastic daydreams. Polls suggest Macron is eight points ahead. But it’s tense. As Wellington said after Waterloo, it could yet be “the nearest-run thing you ever saw”.