The French presidential run-off is on Sunday, and the fate of the European Union is at stake.
Frontrunners Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron will go head-to-head at the polls as French voters decide between two diametrically opposed world views. Macron, who took home 24.01 percent of the vote in the initial election on April 23, remains the favorite, while Le Pen, who earned 21.3 percent, is trailing behind.
Polls indicate Macron should emerge victorious, but a number of factors could see his rival edge him out for the top spot. Center-right candidate François Fillon and far-left long-shot Jean-Luc Mélenchon each drew a significant number of voters in the first round, though not enough to make the run-off. Fillon swiftly endorsed Macron following his defeat, citing a Le Pen win as an unacceptable outcome. Mélenchon, however, declined to endorse, though he did advise his voters not to vote for Le Pen. A poll has suggested that the majority of Mélenchon voters will not vote for Macron.
No matter who wins, the election is an unusual one. French politics is typically dominated by the center-right and center-left, with little major office time for fringe parties and politicians. But for the first time since 1958, none of France’s more traditional parties will be represented. Instead, the race is between the National Front’s Le Pen, a hawkish far-right nationalist, and the centrist ex-investment banker Macron, who, apart from a brief stint with the Socialist party, is relatively new to politics — his current party, the centrist En Marche!, was founded in 2016.
For supporters of the National Front (FN), the run-off has a tinge of déjà vu. In 2002, Le Pen’s even more controversial father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, went head to head with then-President Jacques Chirac. Alarmed by the threat of Le Pen, voters across the political spectrum united behind Chirac, who defeated his rival with over 82 percent of the vote.
It’s a phenomenon many are convinced will repeat itself. But the younger Le Pen has worked to distance FN from her father, who she ousted from the party in 2015 following anti-Semitic remarks. Running on a populist platform that emphasizes nationalism, Le Pen has sought to paint herself as a working woman and champion for France, often at the expense of Muslims and immigrants. While recent gaffes, including allegations of anti-Semitism and plagiarism, have dogged her campaign, she has successfully attracted support in a country where many are insecure about shifting demographics and decreasing global status. In a France where many feel “Frenchness” is becoming obsolete, Le Pen has found a following — to say nothing of a hardline base of eurosceptics.
Le Pen has long been critical of the European Union. She has promised a “France first” approach should she become president, with an additional vow to take the country out of the Eurozone. Unless the EU agrees to revert to a group without a shared currency or open borders, Le Pen has also promised to hold a referendum on France’s EU membership, much like the one held by the United Kingdom in 2016.
“The European Union will die because the people do not want it anymore… arrogant and hegemonic empires are destined to perish,” she told a crowd in late March, a comment that sparked cheers.
The election’s importance has not been lost on world leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a frequent Le Pen target, has stressed her support for Macron. The move represents something of a political migration for Merkel, who endorsed conservative former President Nicolas Sarkozy over his Socialist rival François Hollande in 2012. (Sarkozy later lost to Hollande.) But the stakes are different now. France and Germany currently serve as the EU’s heavyweights. If France withdraws from the EU, Germany will be left to guide the bloc on its own — something that will undoubtedly spell doom for the union’s continued success.
“It is and of course remains the decision of the French voters, in which I am not interfering,” Merkel said in an interview with the Kölner Stadt Anzeiger newspaper. “But I would be pleased should Emmanuel Macron win, because he stands for a consistent, pro-European policy — that I will say too.” She pointedly made no remarks about Le Pen.
Merkel isn’t alone in her leanings. In a surprising move, former President Barack Obama also waded into fray with a Macron endorsement. In a video endorsement that Macron promptly tweeted, Obama firmly asserted his support for the candidate.
“I’m not planning to get involved in many elections now that I don’t have to run for office,” he said. “But the French election is very important to the future of France and the values that we care so much about.” He went on to appeal to “people’s hopes and not their fears,” emphasizing the importance of the election to the world.
Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen also lost no time in issuing his support. Following Macron’s win in the initial voting round, Rasmussen took to Twitter to congratulate the former banker and wish him luck.
Congratulations @EmmanuelMacron. We should await the final election, but Europe needs an openminded and reformoriented France => Good luck!
— Lars Løkke Rasmussen (@larsloekke) April 23, 2017
Such demonstrations aren’t much of a surprise. A Le Pen win almost certainly spells doom for the EU, and should the European project fail, the consequences will be swift. France is a founding member of the EU, and its role in keeping the bloc stable is indisputable. While Macron has worked to play down his pro-EU stance in a bid for votes, his criticism of the bloc has hardly been in step with his rival’s. A Le Pen victory would likely send markets tumbling, ensuring disaster for the euro, and considerable economic panic across borders.
The consequences would also impact the United States, diplomatically as well as economically. Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, has said that the results would be catastrophic.
“In diplomatic terms, I would say it will be a total disaster,” he told the Washington Post in March. “It means the collapse of the E.U., because the E.U. without France doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “And it means the collapse of the euro and a financial crisis, which will have consequences throughout the world.”
France’s relations with the United States aren’t the only diplomatic channels that would be affected — Thierry Dana, France’s ambassador to Japan, wrote a blistering piece for the leading French publication Le Monde in March stating his refusal to serving under Le Pen.
Le Pen, for her part, has staked her campaign on French dissatisfaction with the status quo. During her last debate with Macron on Wednesday night, she drove home her point, using the ever-looming Merkel as a stand-in for the EU itself.
“France will be led by a woman — either me or Mrs. Merkel,” she declared.
Macron offered a very different view.
“We are in the world,” he said. “France is not a closed country.”