PARIS — Ever since Donald Trump proved last November that anything is possible in the topsy-turvy new world of Western politics, May 7 has been circled on European calendars with a mix of giddy anticipation and existential dread.
To right-wing populists, the presidential election in France — a country scarred by unemployment and terrorism — seemed to offer the next big opportunity to remake the postwar global order in their own nationalist, nativist and protectionist image.
To the mainstream, it looked like a possible third strike after Trump and Brexit — one with the potential to doom the European Union, NATO and other pillars of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
But as tens of millions of French voters prepare to cast ballots Sunday, indicators suggest that the populist wave is likely to bypass Gallic shores.
In final pre-election polling, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron held an overwhelming advantage of about 25 points over far-right challenger Marine Le Pen — up from 20 points days earlier. Even with the last-minute release of thousands of hacked Macron campaign documents, analysts said the scale of his lead gave Le Pen little hope of eking out a victory.
“Her chances are very weak,” said Olivier Rouquan, a political analyst at Pantheon-Assas II University.
A Le Pen loss, however, will hardly be a knockout blow for populism — or a ringing vindication of the establishment.
If anything, the French campaign has solidified the new fracture lines in modern politics, which bear little relation to the relatively modest differences marking the old left-right divide. Instead, the choice voters face on Sunday illustrates the profound new chasm in the West: between those who favor open, globalized societies and others who prefer closed, nationalized ones.
“What’s the common ground between Macron and Le Pen? There is none. What we’re seeing is historic: a choice between two completely different modes of organizing a society,” said Madani Cheurfa, a professor of politics at Paris’s Sciences Po. “The world is focused on France because France has managed to encapsulate — almost to the point of caricature — the debate underway across the world.”
Already knocked out of the presidential race are the two mainstream parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, which have led France for much of its recent history. Both had allowed their messages to become muddled and strained as they attempted to straddle the new divide.
The candidates who are left are unapologetic champions of their respective camps. They rarely try to reach across to those in the other. Their supporters see the world in ways that often seem diametrically opposed.
Macron, a 39-year-old former banker and economy minister, celebrates immigration as a cultural and economic force for good. Flags with the E.U.’s blue field and gold stars are a common sight at his rallies, and he enthusiastically endorses the bloc as the continent’s best guarantor of peace. His supporters tend to be educated, urban and optimistic.
Le Pen, the 48-year-old leader of a far-right party that her father founded in the 1970s, rails against the evils of mass immigration and warns that France is losing its identity amid a tide of mostly Muslim newcomers. She has called for the dismantling of the E.U., threatened to take France out of NATO and heaped praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her backers tend to be rural, white, less educated and, without a radical shift in direction, gloomy about France’s future.
Until recently, the option embodied by Le Pen wasn’t even on the ballot for votes like the one Sunday. When it was — her father, convicted Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen, made the final round of the French presidential vote in 2002 — it was defeated by a massive margin.
But Marine Le Pen has kept this year’s contest reasonably competitive until its final days and is on track to more than double her father’s vote share from 15 years ago.
That trend explains why, even if Macron claims the presidency on Sunday, his supporters say they will be more relieved than exultant.
“If we win, we have five years to do something with it,” said Aurélie Quartier, a former elementary school teacher who was handing out Macron fliers near a subway stop in a working-class neighborhood of eastern Paris this past week. “Otherwise [Le Pen] will be elected in the first round in 2022.”
Quartier, 38, said she had never been involved in politics until this year, when she realized that Le Pen’s National Front could actually take hold of the Elysee Palace. The thought chilled her, and galvanized her.
So she’s been out on the streets every day for the past month, talking to her neighbors and trying to convince them that regardless of how they feel about Macron, they need to vote for him to block Le Pen.
She was nervous enough about the result that on Friday, she started her work at 8 a.m. and didn’t plan to stop until 11:59 p.m. — the final minute that campaigning was legally allowed.
“I want to be able to say I did everything I could,” she said as she stood beside a poster of a grinning Macron and the name of his movement, Onward.
To Quartier, Le Pen and her movement represent an affront to the multicultural way of life that Quartier has come to know in a neighborhood where the smell of Turkish spices wafts from the weekly market, and the corner grocery store is run by an Arab owner who specializes in Serbian fare.
The choice on Sunday, Quartier said, is elemental.
“Do we remain ourselves, or do we give in to the worst inside us?” she asked. “To feel fear and rejection is human. But do we surrender to that and say, ‘I don’t like you because you don’t look like me?’ Or do we try to bring out the best in ourselves? It’s the best versus the worst.”
For Eve Froger, a 20-year-old law student, Sunday presents France with an equally dramatic decision. But it’s Macron who’s the threat, and Le Pen who’s the country’s would-be savior.
“I’m worried about unemployment and housing and security and the defense of French identity,” she said. “France comes from a Judeo-Christian culture, and we have to defend it on a daily basis. Too often we deny our identity in favor of globalism.”
She decided at the age of 18 that the only party that spoke to her concerns was the National Front. Froger has been campaigning for the party ever since, handing out leaflets, blasting pro-
Le Pen messages on social media and only taking time out from this spring’s presidential contest to study for exams.
Raised by a single mother in a hardscrabble Paris suburb, Froger said affluent and cosmopolitan city dwellers have little idea of the problems facing ordinary French citizens.
She was pleased when Macron won a place in the second round against Le Pen because Froger sees him as the sharpest contrast to her champion, the ultimate symbol of an out-of-touch, globalized elite.
“He’s a man of the financial system with no compassion for the people of France,” Froger said. “He only cares about himself and the E.U. What defines this election is on one side the defense of the E.U.’s interests and on the other side the defense of France’s interests.”
Rouquan, the analyst, said it’s unlikely a majority of French voters will agree — this time, at least. But assuming he wins, Macron will be under immediate pressure to do something he hasn’t during the campaign: reach out to Le Pen voters and convince them he’s committed to making their lives better. Otherwise, their ranks could soon grow.
“Marine Le Pen is making progress, step by step,” Rouquan said. “Next time, she could make it to power.”
Virgile Demoustier contributed to this report.