France’s Extraordinary Election

PARIS – Sixty years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome, France is poised to hold an election that could make or break the European Union. A victory for the pro-EU independent centrist Emmanuel Macron could be a positive turning point, with France rejecting populism and deepening its connections with Germany. If, however, French voters hand the presidency to the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen – who was, tellingly, just warmly received by Vladimir Putin in Moscow – the long European project will be finished.

Clearly, this is no ordinary French election. With the EU’s survival on the line, the stakes are higher than in any election in the history of the Fifth Republic. So, does France’s nationalist, xenophobic right have a real chance of coming to power?

To be sure, the National Front is well established in French political life. Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded the party in 1972, and led it until 2011, when his daughter took over. But its electoral success has so far been limited. While Jean-Marie made it to the second-round runoff in 2002, he ended up losing badly when the center and the left united behind Jacques Chirac.

Like her father, Marine Le Pen is likely to make it to the second round in May; indeed, polls have her winning the most votes in the first round. Many remain confident that she will be defeated in the runoff: Macron is projected to win 63% of the vote in a head-to-head contest against Le Pen. But populist victories in 2016 – particularly the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as US president – have shown that the unthinkable can happen.