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French voters face a momentous choice

France’s presidential election is turning out to be a tight and unpredictable contest. The far-right Marine Le Pen is gaining ground on President Emmanuel Macron, who last month seemed assured of re-election. Financial markets are waking up to the possibility of a stupendous upset in the election’s second round on April 24. The spread between French and German 10-year government bond yields has widened to a range not seen since the pandemic’s early days in April 2020.

From Sunday’s first round, which features 12 candidates, Macron and Le Pen will almost certainly progress to the knockout stage. But it speaks to the deep-seated discontents of French society and the volatility of its politics that the leading challengers to Macron are all anti-establishment extremists — Le Pen, the even more intransigent rightwinger Eric Zemmour and the radical leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

In 2017 Macron achieved an emphatic 66-34 per cent victory over Le Pen in the second round. No such margin of triumph is likely this time. In fact, opinion polls point to the emerging risk of a French version of Donald Trump’s 2016 US presidential election victory or the UK’s Brexit referendum.

This is attributable partly to the weaknesses of the mainstream centre-right and centre-left in France. Pulverised by Macron in 2017 and burdened with past scandals and a poor record in government, they have made next to no impact on this election. Yet Le Pen’s surge also reflects an effective campaign. She appears less extreme than Zemmour, has concentrated on cost of living issues that weigh on voters’ minds more than the Ukraine war, and has abandoned some damaging planks of her 2017 campaign, such as a pledge to withdraw France from the eurozone.

But voters should be under no illusions that a Le Pen victory would be disastrous for France, would plunge the EU into chaos and would harm Europe’s democratic order in a way that would benefit only the likes of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Le Pen plays up her cat-loving, single-mother status and plays down her once unabashed enthusiasm for Putin. But her plans include repudiating the primacy of EU law, establishing a “national preference” for hiring French workers over foreigners and banning Muslim headscarves in all public places.

At times Macron has been an excessively aloof president, but his record is more than creditable. Five years ago, at 39, he became France’s youngest head of state since Napoleon Bonaparte, vowing to pull it out of the malaise in which it had languished under Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. He has not achieved all he promised, but on the economic and EU fronts he has been the most influential president since François Mitterrand’s tenure from 1981 to 1995.

His achievements include tax cuts for companies and households, lowering France’s chronically high jobless rate and handling the pandemic skilfully, such that the economy recovered faster than elsewhere in Europe. He played a key part in the EU’s landmark decision to launch a post-Covid recovery fund involving common debt issuance and investment.

Macron can be faulted for misreading Putin when, two years before the Ukraine war, he tried to launch a “strategic dialogue” with Russia. His efforts to dissuade Putin from invading Ukraine were a valiant, if ineffectual, shot at diplomacy. But his calls for a more resilient Europe, better equipped to protect its international interests, look timely in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is hard to see how French voters, in a dangerous world, could think it wise to entrust their fate to Le Pen over the incumbent.

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