Analysis

French Election Could Be the End of Europe as We Know It - and a Headache for Israel

If far-right's Le Pen and far-left's Mélenchon overtake front-runner Macron, it's hard to see how the EU could last for long

Le Pen
JOEL SAGET/AFP

Just a month ago, the leaders of 27 of the 28 members of the European Union gathered for a special meeting commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Rome, establishing the European Economic Community, the forerunner of what would become the EU. The absence of Theresa May, prime minister of the U.K., the first country to decide to leave the EU, dampened the festivities somewhat. But much worse could be in store. The results of the first round of voting on Sunday in France’s presidential election could sound the death knell for Europe as we know it today. If the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and the far-left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon overtake the front-runner Emmanuel Macron, who is leading them by a very slim margin, it is hard to see how France will remain in the EU for much longer. And without Britain and France, two of the three largest economies in Europe, it is hard to see the EU last for long at all.

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Neither candidate intend to take France out of the EU or the euro currency group immediately, if elected. Le Pen has spoken of holding a Brexit-style referendum first while Mélenchon plans to introduce an economic program which will smash the rules that underpin the joint fiscal responsibility of the euro. Both favor a protectionist trade policy which contradicts the European single market’s fundamental freedom of trade. In their speeches, they both regard leaving Europe not only as a possibility, but a desired outcome. Le Pen has said how she wants France to be “more French and less European.” Mélenchon, the Communist fellow-traveler, has waxed eloquently on his love of the “Bolivarian” system of Cuba and Venezuela, while excoriating the leaders of the EU, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel for forcing other EU members – including Greece, Spain and Portugal – to commit to austerity programs in order to stabilize their economies.

Macron is leading in the polls – ahead of Le Pen by a point or two and ahead of Mélenchon by a few points more – and the victory of two candidates from the opposite extremes of French politics would be unprecedented in the Fifth Republic. But just last year, on June 23, few believed that at the moment of truth, a majority of the conservative and cautious British voters would choose a vague nationalistic future over the EU, which had allowed Britain a sustained period of economic prosperity and growth for four decades of membership. But 51.9 percent ultimately did just that. And in France today, it could take as little as 45 percent shared between Mélenchon and Le Pen to push Macron to third place and seal Europe’s fate. 

Le Pen and Mélenchon Illustrate perfectly how short the ideological distance between far-right and far-left in today’s Europe can be. Le Pen is much more blatant in appealing to Gallic xenophobia and the soul of ancient France, while Mélenchon is ostensibly sworn to socialist internationalism. But fundamentally, both candidates are classic French nationalists who share very similar fiscal and foreign affairs policies. 

A French citizen leaves a voting booth after casting his ballot in France's presidential election at the Embassy of France in Washington, April 22, 2017.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

They both support leaving NATO, though it should be noted that Le Pen is slightly more reserved, saying that she only wants to leave NATO’s unified military command and not necessarily the entire alliance, like Charles De Gaulle did. Both have been very positive toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. Le Pen, like the rest of her colleagues on the far right, is attracted to Putin’s paleo-conservatism, homophobia and ultra-nationalism. For Mélenchon it is an undying Russophilia and anti-Americanism he cannot shake free of, which allows him to ignore the fact that Putin is the antithesis of all that the left stands for. It’s worth noting that conservative right-winger François Fillon, the fourth-runner in the race, with a chance of making it to the second-round, is a Putin-admirer, too, though he does not oppose France remaining in the EU or NATO. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that of the four main candidates, Macron has been the target of alleged Russian hacking to his campaign’s computers and nasty innuendos from Kremlin-controlled media.

Since the end of World War II, the membership of western Europe’s three powers in the EU and NATO has ensured the continent’s peace, counter-balanced the Soviet Union and helped bring about the Soviet empire’s implosion by posing an example of prosperity. Europe can survive Britain (which remains a staunch NATO member) leaving the EU, but France leaving both entities would shatter the EU and dramatically weaken both NATO and the entire west facing Putin’s aggression. 

A Le Pen-Mélenchon run-off would be a headache for Israel, too. Mélenchon is the candidate of France’s Left Front, the only political party represented at a national level which has an actively pro-Palestinian policy and supports boycotts of Israel. This is usually not a major issue, as the party has never polled over seven percent in national elections, but if Mélenchon takes the presidency,  these views would gain a much larger platform. As for Le Pen, she has been officially ostracized by Israel throughout her political career. Israel accepts the policy of the French Jewish leadership that sees her National Front party as anti-Semitic and therefore has no ties with it. Earlier this year, when the party’s secretary-general Nicolas Bay visited Israel, in an attempt to boost ties with French Jews, no official representative would agree to meet him. The prospect of either Le Pen or Mélenchon becoming the leader of a major western nation would be unpalatable in Jerusalem.