The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The French election takes Europe to the brink, again

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You can’t fault Marine Le Pen for trying. For a decade, the far-right leader has vied to become president of France; she goes for a third time this Sunday, facing off against President Emmanuel Macron in a second-round vote. In 2017, Macron, then a maverick outsider buoyed by a “republican” alliance of voters desperate to block the far right, defeated Le Pen in a landslide. Though Macron once more appears the likely favorite, polls indicate a considerably closer contest this time.

For many onlookers elsewhere in Europe, that’s still reason to sweat. A Le Pen presidency would mark a moment of profound whiplash — not just for France but the continent. Macron staked his rule on placing France at the heart of a more integrated and strengthened European project. Le Pen is a skeptic of the continent’s defining geopolitical institutions — the European Union and NATO — and peddles a hypernationalism that could yet one day take France out of both.

“The choice that the French people are facing is critical — for France and for Europe,” tweeted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday. “It is the choice between a democratic candidate, who believes that France grows in a powerful E.U. And a far-right candidate, who openly sides with those attacking our freedom and democracy.”

Le Pen’s historic affinity for the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as her party’s record of counting on loans from banks linked to Russia, darkened the cloud of suspicion around her. She championed Russian actions in Ukraine in 2014 and has extolled Putin’s rule. Five years ago, she described herself in an interview with the BBC as standing up for the same “big lines” as former president Donald Trump and Putin — two leaders at the time whom Le Pen believed operated with similar nationalistic, illiberal impulses as her.

Could Le Pen win the French election? The Post answers your questions.

She has since moderated her positions, but questions remain over how much. “Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Le Pen proposed a new Franco-Russian alliance, promising to forge one even if it provoked American sanctions,” my colleagues reported. “She said Ukraine belongs in Russia’s sphere of influence and, in 2014, defended Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.” Leading up to the invasion, she blamed tensions on NATO and said she didn’t believe Russia intended to invade.

Since the invasion, Le Pen pivoted, expressing solidarity for the plight of the Ukrainian people. But she still argues against providing Ukraine heavy weaponry or banning Russian oil and gas imports, and wants to push for a NATO-Russia rapprochement that would likely come at the expense of Ukrainian political aspirations.

“We have no illusions about who she is, who she represents and the political agenda she has been promoting for years,” said Rihards Kols, head of the foreign affairs committee in Latvia’s Parliament, told my colleagues. It’s “pro-Russian, pro-Kremlin rhetoric aimed at undermining E.U. unity” and fragmenting NATO.

“If she wins, Putin wins,” former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta told The Washington Post. “And European integration will lose, as it will stop and backpedal. And populist, anti-European ideals will take root in other European countries.”

This was Macron’s line of attack when he and Le Pen sparred in a pre-election debate Wednesday night. “You depend on the Russian leadership and you depend on Mr. Putin,” Macron claimed. “You talk to your banker when you talk about Russia.” Le Pen countered that she was “an absolutely and totally free woman” and warned about the risk of pushing the Kremlin closer to Beijing and creating a “Russian-Chinese superpower.”

Le Pen sought to shift the conversation to domestic matters, including the state of the economy and rising inflation. Capitalizing on a view shared by many in France, including voters who would usually not side with the far right, she speaks of how Macron’s agenda has benefited wealthy elites more than the average French person. Polls show Le Pen commanding greater support in rural areas of France than Macron, but also among young voters — what for some would be a worrying indication of a slow-moving political shift in the country.

The French president is trying to claw back support. “Macron has proposed extending some of his current policies, including a cap on electricity and natural gas prices that was introduced last year,” my colleagues explained. “He has also promised additional tax cuts and more spending on green energy if he wins a second five-year term. Macron has framed his proposals as more realistic than Le Pen’s. The far-right leader wants to scrap income taxes for anyone younger than 30, cut taxes on energy and many basic goods, and go on a government spending spree.”

What Macron has done to French politics

Le Pen has hardly abandoned her more hard line views on identity and immigration. In the debate, she argued that France had sunk into “barbarity and savagery” and vowed to end “anarchic and massive immigration,” which she said was “aggravating the insecurity” in France. In her campaign manifesto, Le Pen wants to amend the Constitution to restrict immigration, while also establishing a legal distinction between “native-born French” and “others.” She also wants to ban the public wearing of Muslim headscarves — which she has called an “Islamist uniform.” Macron argued that such a move would foment a civil war.

Yet Macron’s critics on the left argue that he has spent much of his presidency fighting Le Pen on her terrain, waging a stigmatizing campaign against “Islamist separatism” in the country. “During his first term in office, Macron’s administration flirted with the same right-wing themes that have powered Le Pen’s rise — including Islam, security and immigration,” wrote Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar and commentator. “Indeed, the entire political landscape in France is not immune to the appeal of policies that have profound effects on anyone who was not born White and on French soil. Whether Macron retains his seat, the effects of the creeping acceptance of the premises fueling Le Pen’s rise will be profound.”