“The policies that I represent are the policies that are represented by Mr Trump. They’re represented by Mr Putin.” That was Marine Le Pen speaking in 2017. In just two weeks’ time, she could be elected as president of France.

Le Pen, the standard bearer of France’s far right, is now through to the final round of the presidential election, where she will face off against President Emmanuel Macron. The first round of voting placed Le Pen less than five percentage points behind Macron. The fact that 57 per cent of French voters opted for candidates of the extreme left or extreme right in the first round — while the traditional centre parties collapsed — looks bad for a centrist incumbent president, like Macron.

The first poll taken of voting intentions for the second round shows Macron beating Le Pen by 54 to 46 per cent. That will bolster the view that, although the race is close, a Le Pen victory remains very unlikely. But the uncomfortable reality is that the far right is now polling at levels that are unprecedented in France’s post-1945 history — and a lot can happen in a two-week campaign.

Rather than dismissing Le Pen’s chances, it is time to think seriously about what her possible victory would mean for France and beyond. Is she still a “far-right” politician? Or might a Le Pen presidency be less of a shock to the system than many imagine?

The fact that Le Pen is so close to the presidency testifies to her success in “detoxifying” her image. She broke some years ago with her father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen — who had a long record of open racism. In this election, Marine Le Pen has campaigned largely on cost-of-living issues. She has dropped some of the most controversial policies that helped sink her 2017 campaign — such as calling for France to leave the euro and the restoration of the death penalty. And she has used the Ukraine war to distance herself from Vladimir Putin, claiming that her view of the Russian leader has “changed”.

But Le Pen’s previous open admiration for Putin and Donald Trump is still telling. Like them, Le Pen claims to represent the people against the elite and the nation against the “globalists”. Her campaign slogan — “Give the French back their country” — has strong echoes of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and the Brexit campaign’s “Take back control”.

Le Pen’s programme still contains plenty of red meat for the far right. Her pledge to impose a complete ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public is starkly illiberal and would be unprecedented in Europe. She claims that the police would be instructed to issue fines to all hijab-wearers — which sounds like a recipe for constant confrontation on the streets. Relations between the police and non-white or Muslim communities, already tense, would be likely to get much worse.

The French left, always fond of demonstrations, would probably take to the streets in shock if Le Pen actually won. France is still reeling from the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests, merging into riots, of 2018-19. It could once again face social turmoil. At the other end of the spectrum, the financial markets might take fright at a Le Pen victory — adding to the sense of crisis.

A bitterly divided France would have implications for the whole of Europe. The direct consequences of a Le Pen presidency for the EU would also be grave — indeed life-threatening.

Over the years, French statesmen such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Jacques Delors were fundamental to the construction of the European project. But Le Pen is intent on the EU’s deconstruction. She promises to restore the primacy of French law over EU law, which is incompatible with membership of the 27-nation union. She also pledges to unilaterally cut France’s contributions to the EU budget.

Within Europe, Le Pen has cultivated ties with the “illiberal democrats” of Hungary and Poland. She was swift to congratulate Hungary’s Viktor Orban on his election victory earlier this month — despite the fact that Orban is charged by the EU with violating the rule of law, suppressing media freedom and corruption. At best, Le Pen is untroubled by Orban’s sins. At worst, she sees them as a model for France.

With Le Pen in control of France, Orban’s claim that his illiberal nationalism represents the future of Europe would suddenly seem more plausible. Italy’s Matteo Salvini — who like Le Pen has cultivated Putin and Trump — would sniff power.

The reactions in Brussels and Berlin to a Le Pen victory would be horror — probably followed by negotiations. Unable to abandon the EU project, France’s partners would seek to take the edges off Le Pen’s policies and somehow make them compatible with continued membership of the EU.

The British government would watch with interest from the sidelines. Some hardline Brexiters would see a Le Pen victory as both a vindication and an opportunity. More sensible voices in London will fear the implications for western unity in the midst of the Ukraine war.

Le Pen is not just an enemy of the EU. She has also called Nato a “warmongering organisation” and pledged to take France out of its command structure. And she opposes energy sanctions on Russia — ostensibly because they would increase the cost of living in France.

Putin has had a disastrous few weeks. But the voters of France could yet offer him some hope.

gideon.rachman@ft.com





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