Can the EU Handle President Le Pen?

Marine Le Pen is the only candidate confident of progressing to the French presidential election’s runoff after Sunday’s first-round vote. So why, asks Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, hasn’t the EU made plans to deal with the nightmare scenario of her ultimate victory ?



After Trump and Brexit and the annus horribilis of 2016, you might think that Europe’s governments have developed detailed contingency plans for the nightmare scenario of a Marine Le Pen victory in France’s presidential elections. But you’d be wrong. The thought of President Le Pen is so frightening that it remains, for many, a scenario that dare not speak its name.

Le Pen calls herself the “anti-Merkel”. On Europe, she promises to renegotiate the terms of membership and then hold a referendum. If the EU does not agree, she will recommend Frexit. She has also pledged to leave the EU’s border-free Schengen Area and the euro.

Where Le Pen parts ways with the UK’s Brexiteers is in her call for protectionist trade measures. Claiming to be a Gaullist, she has a vision for great power relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Trump in a multipolar axis upholding traditional values, defending Christianity, and fighting Islamist terror.

Of course, the opinion polls still favor the centrist Emmanuel Macron in a second-round run-off. But many fear that his voters will not turn out. And, as the traditional two-party system has given way to a four-party system, Le Pen’s lead in the first-round polls has been a rare point of stability.

Her rise has much to do with her reinvention of the National Front. By reaching out to three key groups – civil servants, women, and Catholics – she has guided her party out of its far-right ghetto. And, to prevent its program being undermined by the French “deep state,” her ally Florian Phillipot has tried to build a new elite of qualified people for a National Front government.

Compared to Le Pen, Europe’s leaders seem under-prepared. Could they work around a President Le Pen, particularly if she were forced into “cohabitation” with a hostile parliament? What steps could they take to prevent her from dismantling the EU from within? How should they respond to her demand to renegotiate French EU membership? Should the European Commission develop Frexit plans?

There may be no good answers to these questions. But if we learned one thing in 2016, it is that planning for nightmare scenarios like a Le Pen victory is far wiser than trusting opinion polls.