How Marine Le Pen could cause chaos in France – and Europe

The prime minister may have triggered Article 50 just a few days ago, but everyone’s eyes are now on the approaching French elections. With just over three weeks to go before the first round, people across the continent are getting jittery about the possibility of the far-right Marine Le Pen becoming president.

To judge whether these fears are realistic, we’ve enlisted Richard Tombs, Professor of History at St John’s College Cambridge. Tombs is one of the pre-eminent experts in French political history and was a key member of Historians for Britain, a group of pro-Brexit academics, giving him a unique perspective on events.

Tombs believes that Le Pen is unlikely to win, simply because she is so far behind in the head-to-head polls, especially if she faces Emanuel Macron in the second round. However, he warns that it would be a big mistake to write her off completely. His French friends all think that she still has a good chance, he says, especially if she ends up facing the scandal-plagued François Fillon instead. Although the French population were willing to rally around Jacques Chirac en masse in 2002, when Marine’s father unexpectedly got through to the second round, Tombs thinks that the “anyone-but-Le Pen” vote is now much smaller.

Indeed, if it ends up being a Fillon versus Le Pen contest, Tombs predicts that many people on the left would simply stay home. Part of the reason for this is that Fillon’s policies are considered extremely right wing (at least by French standards).

However, the bigger problem is that people are so disgusted by what they perceive as endemic political corruption that “they are unwilling to make the effort to prop up what they consider to be a failed system”. While Macron isn’t nearly as unpopular, his career as a former banker means that many French people aren’t particularly fond of him either.

Tombs also throws cold water on the idea that the failure of Geert Wilders to get the most votes in the recent Dutch elections proves that “the populist wave in Europe has peaked”. First of all, trying to draw lessons from the recent vote doesn’t make much sense because the Netherlands and France are “two very different countries”. In any case, Tombs argues that the causes of popular discontent – slow economic growth and the social problems associated with immigration – “are not going away”.

If Le Pen does somehow manage to get into office, Tombs thinks that things could get very bad very quickly. While his friends are “phlegmatic” about a Le Pen victory, Tombs forsees, “riots and strikes” as those opposed to her try to stop her far-right agenda. Even if such disturbances are avoided, her election would be “a crisis for both the EU and Europe”.

While some commentators think that Britain could use this chaos to our advantage, Tombs think that this would end up disrupting Brexit by delaying the negotiations over Britain’s future relationship with the EU.

If the polls turn out to be correct and Macron does indeed become France’s leader, Tombs expects the result to “generate a wave of relief”, making it easier for the former economy minister to carry out his reforms aimed at boosting French growth.

But such euphoria is unlikely to last for long. While Macron’s outsider status may be key to his appeal, it will make the necessary parliamentary coalition-building extremely difficult. Overall, Tombs thinks that France has the choice between a leader who will “create an immediate crisis” and one who “may end up being extremely weak”.

Tombs also think that, “there is not much difference” in the attitudes of Fillon and Macron towards Brexit, since both politicians “are solidly in favour of the EU” and “angry with the UK for having threatened European unity”. They will also want to consolidate the Franco-German relationship as the core driving force in Europ, and so will want to “appear to take a hard line”. However, they will have to balance these desires with the need to reduce the risk to the French economy and preserve military cooperation with the UK.

Assuming that there are no nasty surprises on 7 May and a mainstream candidate wins the overall election, Tombs is “fairly optimistic” as to the outcome of Brexit negotiations. Despite the rhetoric on both sides, when it comes down to making decisions, “we don’t want British goods pilling up at Dover, while Brussels doesn’t want European goods piling up at Calais”.

As a result, “the logic of the situation suggests that we will end up with a free trade agreement like Canada”. However, Tombs acknowledges that “politics may not permit such an amicable outcome since there is a genuine desire to punish Britain”.

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