Clea Caulcutt, Politico, April 10, 2022
NATO and the European Union face a nervous two weeks after far-right leader Marine Le Pen on Sunday qualified for the second round of the French presidential election to challenge Emmanuel Macron on April 24.
The French president won 27.6 percent of the vote at the end of the first round of voting. His rival Le Pen, a longtime admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, garnered 23.4 percent of the vote. It is Le Pen’s third appearance —and her highest ever showing — in the first round of a presidential election.
While polling suggests Macron should retain the presidency in two weeks, he is on course for a far closer second-round clash than in the 2017 election, when he also faced Le Pen.
Those narrowing poll predictions mean all eyes, both in Europe and in Washington, will be on the twists and turns of the campaign in the coming days, as allies seek to weigh up whether Paris will remain a reliable partner in the war against Putin’s forces in Ukraine. A debate on April 20 is likely to be a decisive encounter where Le Pen will try to project a more polished image than her shaky performance taking on Macron five years ago.
When it comes to NATO, Le Pen has triggered alarm by stating her desire to pull the EU’s only nuclear power out of the alliance’s integrated command structure “so as to be no longer caught up in conflicts that are not ours.” That stance provokes particular concern because — despite her condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine — Le Pen has long enjoyed cozy relations with the Kremlin and has received party loans from a Russian bank.
If she does succeed in overhauling Macron in the second round, she would also inflict potentially fatal harm on the functioning of the European Union. While her party, the National Rally, has dropped its proposal to leave the EU, the free-movement Schengen zone and the euro, Le Pen has remained broadly a Euroskeptic, with plans to reduce France’s EU contributions and promote a coalition with nations such as Hungary and Poland, run by like-minded politicians.
There are also proposals in Le Pen’s campaign platform that contradict the EU’s free movement principles, sparking accusations that her plans for France are Frexit in all but name. Le Pen, for instance, wants to boost the number of border staff and reintroduce checks on goods entering France in order to fight fraud. She also wants to renegotiate the agreement on the Schengen area, which she has slammed as “inapplicable,” and replace it with simplified checks for EU citizens.
The results cement the idea that France has moved beyond the traditional left-right divide that has dominated post-war politics, and toward a battle pitching anti-immigration nationalists, represented by Le Pen, against pro-European progressives who are open to globalization.
Reactions in the camp of her far-right rival Eric Zemmour will also be watched closely. Once seen as a serious threat to her on the right, Zemmour only mustered 7.1 percent of the vote.
Zemmour had no qualms about playing the immigration card when telling his supporters to get behind Le Pen.
“Le Pen faces [Macron], a man who has let 2 million immigrants enter France, and who has not said a word about security, immigration during his campaign and who will do worse if he is elected,” Zemmour told his supporters in Paris. “That’s why I call on my voters to cast a ballot for Marine Le Pen.”