The Future of the Zeitenwende

Jan 22, 2024

The Future of the Zeitenwende—Scenario 4: Président Marine Le Pen?

Marine Le Pen has a real chance of winning the French presidential elections in 2027. That would pose risks for the whole Europe and suspend the Franco-German engine.

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Bild:  Marine Le Pen in der französischen Nationalversammlung, Oktober 2023.
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The 2027 French presidential election is still a long way off. Yet some French policy circles are already talking of the après-Macron. A strong contender for his replacement is former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen of the far-right party Rassemblement National (RN). According to an October 2023 survey by IFOP, one of France’s leading polling companies, Le Pen has a comfortable lead at 31 percent, followed by former French prime minister and center-right candidate, Edouard Philippe at 25 percent (though he has yet to formally declare that he will be running).

Le Pen is one of France’s most recognizable politicians. Her support base praises her “straight talk,” “national pride,” and “love of France.” Her opponents decry her extreme views and the havoc she would wreak to France’s politics and international standing. Yet, with every passing election, she wins more votes. Many French citizens feel she is “more moderate” today than she was 10 years ago.

Whether Le Pen wins in 2027 will depend on a lot of factors, not least what happens to the center-right party Les Républicains, to the left wing of French politics, and to Macron’s support base. What’s clear, however, is that a Le Pen victory would disrupt the European Union and NATO, and have implications for European security and the EU’s standing as a liberal, values-based, political union. It would also be bad news for Franco-German relations. In such a scenario, Germany would have two options: try to minimize Le Pen’s impact on Europe or, instead, build on France’s electoral result to assert more leadership in Europe.

An EU Agenda Against German Interests

Marine Le Pen rarely speaks about the EU, but her views have evolved. After calling for an exit from the euro (in 2012) and later, an exit from both the euro and the EU (2017), she now believes that it would be wrong for France to leave the EU. How much she herself believes in her U-turn is unclear—but it certainly makes for a smarter electoral strategy. Many in France have doubts about the EU, but very few want to leave it all together. Le Pen knows she can get more votes if she talks about reforming the EU, rather than leaving it.

So, what is Le Pen’s EU strategy? It is first about limiting the EU’s powers. Le Pen has called for a looser alliance of “free and sovereign nations”—wherein each member could choose what EU rules to apply. She has even vowed to organize a referendum in order to give French law primacy over EU law, despite the fact that this would be a direct breach of the EU treaties. She wants to control who gets to travel freely inside the EU and modify France’s constitution to ensure that French citizens get “national priority” for employment, social security benefits, and public housing. She also thinks EU countries should be able to reimpose border checks, like they did during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second, it is about giving the impression she supports EU ideas, while at the same time weakening them. For example, she has said that she approves of EU “strategic autonomy” in the field of climate and environment, though she finds the EU’s green objectives too constraining and “punitive.” She wants member states to decide how to decarbonize—and to be able to support their industries and citizens as they see fit, even if this means ignoring EU state aid rules. She wants the EU to increase funding for green technology—and to re-shore “strategic” industrial production. She wants to limit public procurement to EU companies (or EU-based companies) as much as possible. In other words, she favors a highly protectionist EU and does not mind if her proposals contravene EU Single Market rules or run the risk of EU retaliation.

Third, it is about changing policies and outlooks that “contradict France’s national interests.” She would like to take France out of the EU’s electricity market which, she believes, contributes to higher energy costs. She wants to exclude French agriculture from existing EU trade deals. Of course, it is very hard to see how any of the EU’s trade partners would agree to re-open negotiations to satisfy her demands. But France could also choose to disapply parts of the deals unilaterally.

This would be particularly problematic for a country like Germany that is so exports-oriented—especially if an EU trading partner decided to retaliate against France’s action by imposing restrictions or tariffs on the whole of the EU. Le Pen could also try to pause existing negotiations and/or get the EU to significantly restrict the scope of any future trade deal. For this, she would likely get the backing of the French parliament as her party did in October 2023 when it tabled a resolution in the National Assembly to oppose the EU’s free trade agreement with Mercosur. The resolution passed with overwhelming cross-party support.

On foreign policy issues, she would abandon any talk of European sovereignty and put a halt to any further EU or NATO enlargement—especially if this meant bigger EU and NATO budgets and greater French national contributions to them. While she supports Ukraine’s fight for independence, she is against the transfer of arms and military equipment to Kyiv. It is not clear if she would support further sanctions against Russia either. Le Pen has also said she would take France out of NATO’s military command structure.

The consequences for NATO would be severe—especially if former US President Donald Trump were to win a second term next November and pull the US out of NATO as some people close to him have suggested. Could Le Pen grow close to Trump? Le Pen has been mostly critical of the United States in the past but supports Trump’s quest to “bring back the nation state” and “end globalization.” A lot will depend on the US’ role in Europe and whether Trump would re-apply a new wave of sanctions and tariffs on European companies. Finally, on eurozone matters, a leaked memo from her party proposes that eurozone members “with a trade surplus”—i.e., Germany—should contribute more to the EU budget. 

Disrupt, but Not Break-up, the EU

Although her victory would not lead to the break-up of the EU, it would slow down the EU’s work.
There are several ways she could try to disrupt the EU. She could try to veto EU decisions until she gets her way—though that is unlikely to be a winning strategy. Most EU decisions today are taken by consensus and more and more member states, including Germany, are calling to abolish unanimity voting altogether.

She could try to form a blocking coalition inside the EU, but that would mean having good working relations with her peers. She lost her Polish ally, former Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, whose government was replaced by a pro-European coalition at the end of 2023. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Slovakia’s Robert Fico might be natural allies—but even with France, they will fall (very) short of forming a blocking minority.

She could decide to ignore EU rules altogether. The European Commission would almost certainly respond by launching infringement proceedings or withholding EU funds—but it is not clear how much that would deter a Le Pen presidency. As the Centre for European Reform’s Ian Bond and John Springford note, France, unlike Poland or Hungary, has the "fiscal capacity to accept the freezing of EU budget and recovery fund money.” France could simply choose to ignore the commission as well as rulings from the European Court of Justice.

However, Le Pen’s capacity for unilateral action would depend on how supportive the French government is. For that, her party would need to do well in the parliamentary elections, which will also take place in 2027. With a majority, she could appoint the prime minister she wants—and appoint ministers who are sympathetic to her views. If she failed, then she would most likely end up with a prime minister from a different party (in political jargon, this is known as a “cohabitation”). This would significantly limit her room for maneuver, including over some EU policies. As a last resort, she could try to rule by referendum—but she would need the support of the French parliament. Any attempt to hold a referendum by presidential decree would be struck down by the country’s highest court, the constitutional council.

A more realistic strategy would be to try and slow down EU integration by disrupting it from the inside. For example, she could try to delay discussions and publicly blame Brussels in a bid to extract further concessions. This could, in turn, weaken the EU’s unity, cohesion, and international standing. How willing member states, like Germany, would be to appease France would depend on how much support she could muster. If Le Pen finds herself in the minority camp in the European Council, the grouping of the 27 member states, it may be easier to ignore some of her demands. But in any case, the pace of the EU’s work would slow down and the pressure on Germany to lead would grow.

Blow to Franco-German Axis—but Opportunity for Germany?

Her victory would mark the end—or at the very least, the suspension—of the Franco-German engine. While Le Pen has not criticized Chancellor Olaf Scholz directly, she has questioned the Franco-German relationship in the past (calling it a “quasi-fiction”) and has called out their diverging industrial and military interests. During France’s 2022 presidential election, she criticized Germany’s pro-Atlanticist position and has said she would not support Germany’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

On Franco-German defense cooperation, she has signaled that she would end bilateral defense industrial projects, including the Future Combat Air System and main ground combat system to produce battle tanks. Finally, Le Pen could provide a major boost to national-conservative governments and parties—including Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

At the same time, a Le Pen victory might also be the electric shock Germany needs to really lead in Europe. After all, France would have a conflictual relationship with the EU and many of its allies. Were this to happen, member states and EU institutions would likely coalesce around Germany. This would give Berlin a unique opportunity to play the leadership role that many in the EU would like it to play.

It is far too early to say what will happen in 2027, but a Le Pen victory remains a possibility. Her EU promises would be difficult to implement but her support base is unlikely to worry. As her niece Marion Maréchal said, “it is possible to win simply by being against what is currently in place.”

The French presidential election will come at a critical time for the EU: It will be expected to take strategic decisions regarding enlargement, the EU’s budget, and Europe’s security architecture. It will also need to respond to developments in its immediate neighborhood. 2027 may be far off, but Brussels and the European capitals would do well to prepare for all eventualities, especially if they want to defend the EU as an open, values-based, and liberal union.

Georgina Wright is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for International Studies at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.