Le Pen upset of Macron in France could upend NATO and give Putin a boost, analysts say

With everything from the cohesion of the European Union to the strength of NATO hanging in the balance, the unexpectedly strong challenge of the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen to the centrist President Emmanuel Macron is giving many French citizens a sense of déjà vu mixed with dread.

Two campaign posters, one for Macron, saying Nous tous (All of us) and Emmanuel Macron avec vous (Emmanuel Macron with you) and for Le Pen, saying Marine Présidente, Femme d'Etat, or Marine, President, Stateswoman.
Campaign posters for President Emmanuel Macron of France, the centrist LREM party candidate for re-election, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party, as seen in Mitry-Mory, outside Paris, on March 22. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

“The social climate in France is tense,” Mathias Bernard, political historian and president of the University of Clermont Auvergne, told Yahoo News.

In 2017, Macron trounced Le Pen in the presidential election, winning 66% of the vote to her 34%. Since then, traditional loyalties have become more starkly divided, with the urban/rural divide exacerbated by spiking energy prices. Macron and Le Pen, the winners of Sunday’s first round, which whittled down the candidates from 12 to two, will now face off on April 24.

Macron himself underscored the uncertainty of the moment, warning supporters last Sunday, when he pulled in over 27% of the vote, that “Nothing is decided.”

Current French President and centrist presidential candidate for reelection Emmanuel Macron puts his hands on his heart at his election night headquarters Sunday, April 10, 2022 in Paris. (Thibault Camus/AP)
Current French President and centrist presidential candidate for reelection Emmanuel Macron puts his hands on his heart at his election night headquarters Sunday, April 10, 2022 in Paris. (Thibault Camus/AP)

After traveling the country on a charm offensive during which she promised to be “the voice of the forgotten,” Le Pen pulled in more than 23% of votes in the first round — the highest ever for a far-right candidate — and told her fans on Sunday that she was confident that in the final round the French would “vote for our civilization, our culture, our language.”

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who took a hefty 21 percent of the vote Sunday, called the upcoming runoff between Macron and Le Pen a “choice between two evils.” "We know who we will never vote for,” Mélenchon said, adding, “Not a single vote must go to Mme. Le Pen."

Jean-Luc Melenchon captured in full shout, with both hands gesturing boldly.
French far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon comments on the preliminary results of the first round of the presidential election in Paris on April 10. (Michel Spingler/AP)

With the final outcome hinging on the decisions of those who originally backed Mélenchon, “The result of the second round remains uncertain,” Bernard said, partly because Mélenchon declined to endorse Macron. Surveys also indicate that a third of the 7.7 million people who voted for him may indeed back the far-right candidate, and another third may skip the final round altogether, making the election a nail-biter. A post-election poll Sunday night showed Macron with 51% support to 49% for Le Pen. Other polls give Macron an eight-point lead, but analysts warn that the situation is in flux and that the final results could be a game-changer not only for France, but for the West.

“This election could possibly reshape not only France, but reshape Europe and reshape the world's security order,” historian Andrew Hussey, a political essayist for the British magazine the New Statesman who has lived in Paris for two decades, told Yahoo News. The White House is likewise concerned, fearing that Le Pen would yank France out of NATO — or at least from the military side of the alliance.

Marine Le Pen, with a beaming smile, poses for a selfie taken by one of her supporters, also of middle age and with bleached blond hair, at a campaign rally.
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen poses for a selfie with a supporter at a campaign rally in Perpignan, southern France on April 7. (Joan Mateu Parra/AP)

Philippe Waechter, chief of economic research at Ostrum Asset Management in Paris, calls the impressive turnout for Le Pen a “wake-up call” — and not only for financial markets. He fears that a Le Pen victory would weaken the EU as a unified political institution, particularly in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “With Le Pen as president,” he told Yahoo News, “we risk that she would work with Putin more than with Europe. And in that case, the capacity of Europe to be strong and to be a real negotiator with Russia will vanish.”

What makes this election more volatile and unpredictable is that French society finds itself at a moment of heightened discontent, due to the rapid increase in the cost of living, which voters in one recent poll described as their No. 1 concern. The price of gasoline has soared to over $8 a gallon in recent weeks, electricity prices have more than tripled this winter, and inflation has exceeded 7%.

President Emmanuel Macron in full froth, holds a microphone at a rally, with a pensive Brigitte Klinkert listening on the sidelines.
President Emmanuel Macron speaks, as Brigitte Klinkert, a junior minister for economic inclusion, stands by, on a campaign visit to Chatenois, near Strasbourg, in Alsace-Lorraine, France, on April 12. (Johanna Geron/Reuters)

“The economy is doing quite well in terms of jobs and in terms of purchasing power,” Waechter said. Nevertheless, “people have the perception that inflation is high and the government doesn't do anything for poor people.” What’s more, he said, Macron can’t seem to shake the perception of being a “president of the rich,” a moniker that he earned in some quarters after he slashed taxes on the wealthy and reduced subsidies to low-income citizens in his first weeks in office.

The narrow gap between the candidates who will participate in the runoff shows how Le Pen has adapted. In fact, she beat Macron in every age demographic in the first round except for with voters of 60 and older.

Despite slashing unemployment from 10% to 7.5% and pumping up the economy, Macron has angered those who consider he has ignored the needs of non-city dwellers. Others are incensed that he’s fallen short on his climate change goals and that he embarked on a failed attempt at shuttle diplomacy with Putin. The invasion of Ukraine ranks only 14th among the top concerns of French voters. In the weeks leading up to the first round of voting, Macron barely campaigned. He held just one rally, in Paris. Macron has likened himself to Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Zeus, and as Romain Meltz, a social scientist and political researcher in Lyon, commented dryly, “He forgot to come down from Mount Olympus.”

Emmanuel Macron brings his hands together as he speaks to protesters holding signs saying: Help Ukraine with arms, and Today Kyiv, Tomorrow [not visible, but possibly Europe].
Emmanuel Macron speaks to women protesting Russia's invasion of Ukraine, on his first campaign journey on March 28 in Dijon, France. (Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Le Pen campaigned across France, holding rallies in rural towns, promising to slash taxes on energy drastically and to cut taxes for workers under age 30, and lowering of the retirement age from 62 to 60. In contrast, Macron announced he hopes to raise the national retirement age to 65.

The 2017 French presidential election likewise pitted Macron, a former banker and something of a political question mark at the time, against Le Pen, scion of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s virulently anti-immigrant National Front. The hard-right nationalist party was so controversial that in 1976, when Marine Le Pen was 8 years old, a bomb blew up her family's Parisian home, in an apparent assassination attempt on her father. Initially following in his footsteps, she booted him from his party in 2015 and softened some of his positions after he chose to dismiss the Holocaust again as “a detail of history.” Four years ago, she changed the name of her party to National Rally, further distancing it from her father.

In the 2017 election, however, the contrasts were clearer. Le Pen, who weeks before had flown to Moscow to meet with Putin and waged that year’s campaign with a $10 million loan from a Russian bank, then promised warmer ties with Russia, advocated dropping the euro, yanking France out of the European Union and putting a moratorium on all legal immigration to France. Macron promised to forge closer bonds with the EU and to tackle the country’s high unemployment rate.

President Vladimir Putin wears an amused smile as Marine Le Pen, perhaps 3 inches taller than he is, looks disingenuously into the camera, in a magnificent stateroom decorated in turquoise and gilt.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, poses with Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin in Moscow in March 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Since the last election, even Le Pen’s detractors have noted that she’s polished her image and further softened her rhetoric. She now says that she wants France to stay with the euro, is opposed to splitting with the EU and has downplayed her relationship with Putin.

“Le Pen was utterly charming and charismatic,” Hussey said of a recent interview with her. Nevertheless, he added, she’s still hoping to drastically tighten immigration — this time putting the matter to a vote — and promises to ban the public use of the veil by Muslims. Analysts fear that underneath it all, she’s the same old Le Pen, just savvier.

Analysts also see this year’s tight election as underscoring a growing tension between French city dwellers, who are served by an impressive mass transit system, and those in poorly connected towns and villages who are reliant on cars — and thus more vulnerable to surging gasoline prices.

Marine Le Pen looks at a massive bull in a leather harness, with photographers in the background flashing her picture.
Marine Le Pen has a few words for a cow at the 58th International Agriculture Fair at the Porte de Versailles exhibition center in Paris on March 2. (Johanna Geron/Reuters)

“The people affected by the rising cost of living are not just the poor, who now make up 15% of the general population,” said Bernard. “It is also people who live on the outskirts of urban agglomerations and who suffer from debt and travel costs.”

That same dynamic was evident during the Yellow Vest protests in 2018, when violent demonstrations over increases in diesel fuel prices brought the country to a standstill.

Even though left-wing candidates who lost in Sunday’s first round have encouraged supporters to block Le Pen, Bernard is not confident voters will listen.

“Emmanuel Macron is no longer the candidate for change,” he said, “but is responsible for a record that is denounced by many voters on the left. Meanwhile, Le Pen has relegated identity and nationalist themes to the background and is instead developing social proposals: She no longer wants to appear as a far-right candidate; she prefers to be the purchasing power candidate, which may attract leftist voters.”