The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If Le Pen beats Macron, the once-unthinkable will be all too real

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Forget Britain’s vote for Brexit. Forget President Trump’s November win. If Marine Le Pen somehow defeats Emmanuel Macron in France’s presidential runoff vote on Sunday, it may be the biggest electoral shock in the West so far this century.

A win by the leader of the French far right would see a leading European nation select a president emphatically opposed to globalization and integration, friendly to authoritarian Russia and tethered to a party, the National Front, that is steeped in a history of neo-fascism, extremism and bigotry. It could prefigure the dissolution of the European Union, trigger new economic chaos and hammer home the last nail in the coffin of an already ailing liberal order.

A Le Pen victory “means the collapse of the E.U., because the E.U. without France doesn’t make any sense,” Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador in Washington, said in a conversation with Today’s WorldView earlier this year. “And it means the collapse of the euro and a financial crisis, which will have consequences throughout the world.”

Here's what you should know about National Front candidate Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

It’s still an unlikely outcome. Polls place Macron ahead of Le Pen by roughly 20 points with just a few days to go. Most observers thought he was the clear victor in an ill-tempered Wednesday night debate. But Macron’s supporters — and anyone who seeks the preservation of the European project — have good reason to feel jittery.

Reports suggest that many disaffected French voters across the political spectrum may abstain. Those voters already rejected France’s traditional conservative and center-left parties amid a tidal wave of public dissatisfaction. Macron’s boosters see his independent movement — known by its slogan “En Marche,” or “Onward” — as an opportunity to rejuvenate the country with a new “radical centrism.” His critics, principally Le Pen, but also some on the left, cast the former banker as an out-of-touch member of the financial elite beholden to tired neo-liberal dogma.

A video endorsement of Macron from former U.S. president Barack Obama may not help things. After all, Obama’s overt support for Britain’s Remainers last year — as well as a warning that Britain would suffer economically if it left the E.U., interpreted by some as a threat — did not prevent the Leave camp from winning. And it further cements the unhelpful analogy that Macron is the Hillary Clinton to Le Pen’s Trump, the custodian of an unpopular status quo.

Even in defeat, Le Pen is projected to win millions more votes than did her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, when he unexpectedly made the presidential runoff in 2002. That year, the French formed a “Republican Front” of both conservative and left-of-center voters who rallied against the candidate with a fascist past.

But the situation in 2017 is different. The younger Le Pen has spent years bringing the National Front into the mainstream. Voters, moreover, are ready for radical change.

“There was no element of surprise this time,” Dominique Moïsi, a French political scientist, said to my colleague James McAuley. “In 2002, people were genuinely shocked by the fact that someone like Jean-Marie Le Pen could actually reach power. This time, everybody expected it.”

McAuley, the Paris correspondent for The Post, spoke to left-leaning protesters who rallied in the French capital on May Day.

“For years, the right and left just divided the Republic with their disputes, and now there is little left,” said 57-year-old Hamid Djodi while standing in the Place de la République. “In 2002, we believed it, this idea of a ‘Republican Front.’ But now we don’t believe it anymore — all you have is a capitalist running against a ­fascist.”

This disillusionment is most apparent in the rhetoric of leftist presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won close to 20 percent of the first-round vote. While denouncing Le Pen, he has refused to endorse Macron, who served briefly in the Socialist government of President François Hollande and implemented reforms criticized by the left. A poll this week found that some 65 percent of Mélenchon voters would not vote for the centrist candidate, preferring to spoil their ballots or not turn up at all.

The abstention rate in the second round is expected to be the highest in French history. Meanwhile, a significant proportion of voters on the French right may opt for Le Pen.

But even if Le Pen charts a narrow path to victory, her battle will only really begin the day after the election.

Based on conversations with senior politicians and advisers to France’s major parties, including the National Front, Politico Europe’s Nicholas Vinocur imagined what Le Pen’s first 100 days would look like. It would begin likely with riots in some of the country’s alienated minority suburbs, as well as chaos in the markets and a potential banking crisis. And then things could really get crazy.

Le Pen, in a bid to appeal to a broader swath of the country, would fill her cabinet with officials from various conservative factions. But that may not help her in France’s legislative elections in June. The National Front holds just one seat in the National Assembly, and the country’s main parties have vowed to stymie a potential President Le Pen through their parliamentary clout. The prospect of “cohabitation” — when the president and the prime minister, who heads the government, represent two different parties — would be all the more likely.

Le Pen, writes Vinocur, could be “condemned to kibitzing the government while signing executive decrees” on matters ranging from immigration to the process of quitting the European Union. “But decrees would be open to legal challenges from lower courts,” he notes. “Le Pen would spend much of her first 100 days locked in legal disputes, imposing executive will whenever possible.” (Where have we seen this before?)

The more dire scenarios, according to Vinocur, could see Le Pen dissolve Parliament or even invoke an article in the constitution that allows the president full control at a moment when the nation is deemed to be under extreme existential threat. But that, Macron and others in Europe could argue, is what Le Pen already represents.

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