French election: it’s all about Marine

Outcome as key to the future of Europe as it is to France

In one sense the underlying theme, the leitmotif, of the French presidential election has remained unchanged for the last couple of years: it is – and has been – about who will take on and, in all likelihood, defeat the Front National's long-time insurgent Marine Le Pen. But the cast of main characters in this intensely theatrical election, and the odds on each new actor doing so, have been rising and falling precipitously.

Not so long ago likely contenders supposedly included such luminaries as President François Hollande and predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. Who they? And then entered stage right and left, political heavyweights, former prime ministers Alain Juppé and Manuel Valls who were bounced in their respective party primaries. And the three candidates – François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon – who today are running neck and neck with Le Pen for the two places in Sunday's first round run-off elimination, were barely spoken of. The four sit within the polls' margin of error.

The likelihood is that neither of the traditional centre-right and centre-left parties that have governed France since the 1950s will be represented in the run-off in May. And Sunday may yet also result in an unprecedented contest between hard left Mélenchon and hard right Le Pen – ironic, in that the two-round system was introduced in 1962 by Charles de Gaulle principally – and, to date, with effect – to keep extremists out of power. Centrist voters will face a real dilemma in such a scenario.

How badly do the French want to keep Le Pen from power? Her poll rise in the last couple of years suggests that she has become less toxic and more acceptable, in no small measure through a rebranding exercise on the party and a determined distancing of herself from its former leader, her father. But the mask has slipped and in recent weeks so have her polling numbers. She has shown she can touch a raw nerve, provoking outrage this month when she denied the French state’s responsibility in the German-ordered round up of 13,000 Jews by French police in Paris during the second World War. And, in a lurch to the right seen as trying to regain lost ground, on Monday she vowed to suspend all immigration with an immediate moratorium, shield voters from globalisation and strengthen security.


The candidate still most likely to face her and, polls say, defeat her in the second round is Macron, a former banker whose message combines elements of social democracy with neoliberal fiscal politics and who has successfully portrayed himself as a political outsider. Unlike Le Pen, who supports exit from the euro, Macron is a strong supporter of the EU, defends immigration and opposes Islamophobia.

The battle between them will be as key to the future of Europe as it is to France.