From a European point of view, the French have avoided the nightmare outcome of a presidential runoff between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen. But Europe’s political elite should not celebrate too soon.
It is more than probable that Emmanuel Macron will beat Le Pen in the second voting round, yet this might be the best possible outcome for the leader of the National Front.
As Donald Trump is discovering in America, it is often more fun to be the populist outsider than to be in power. A President Le Pen would have limited scope for causing foreign-policy chaos, but, with a massive majority against her in the National Assembly, she would have little prospect of delivering on her electoral promises. Her administration would almost certainly end in failure and the Front National would once again be relegated to the fringes of French politics.
Back to normal
On the other hand, a similar fate may await Macron. His lack of a national party organization did not matter much in the presidential election, but it could be fatal in the parliamentary elections. Macron’s progressive movement is unlikely to win many seats in June.
Optimists argue that moderates will unite around Macron, but I am skeptical. With the immediate threat of Le Pen out the way, the center-right and center-left parties may be more likely to return to their usual bickering, and in particular their resentment of the young upstart. Macron could find his agenda under attack from both sides.
The winner of Macron’s political martyrdom could very well be Le Pen. If Macron struggles to implement his economic reform and pro-European agenda, she would be able to present herself again as the defender of French values and the French social model.
In other words, a Macron presidency, marked by his political inexperience and the absence of a solid legislative majority, rather than putting an end to the fragmentation of French politics, could encourage it to move further to extremes.
A Le Pen presidency this year could have marked the end of the far-right project in France. But dignified defeat might just reinforce the prospect of a more serious nationalist candidate, aunt or niece, in 2022.