An unenviable choice faces French voters. On the one hand they could stick with Emmanuel Macron, who has strutted and fretted his hour upon the international stage, or at least has sat at the other end of an enormous marble table to Vladimir Putin.
Macron pretended, perhaps even to himself, that he could avert the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He couldn’t, and now hastens, before the final round of the presidential election on 24 April, to try to reconnect with a sufficient number of his compatriots by pretending that he cares about such mundane questions as the price of petrol.
When ConservativeHome profiled Macron, we noted that he
“is extraordinarily good at attracting attention to himself, and thus denying it to his opponents, who face an unenviable choice between being sane but invisible, or else insane but unelectable.”
Marine Le Pen, who in 2017 reached the final of the last presidential election but then lost to Macron by the decisive margin of 34 to 66 per cent, has this time sought with some success to be sane but electable.
When ConHome profiled Le Pen in 2015, it noted that she was trying to learn from the mistakes of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in 2002 terrified the French establishment by reaching the second round of the presidential election, but who then lost by 18 per cent to 82 per cent to Jacques Chirac, because even the Left rallied round to stop Le Pen:
“most of her life has been devoted to her father’s movement, and in recent years to its ‘de-demonisation’: the striking of a more moderate tone, which makes it harder to write her and her followers off as a band of repellent racists.”
The younger Le Pen has striven with considerable success to seem unthreatening, and for a time, Macron underestimated her. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard observes in The Daily Telegraph:
“The Élysée has been strangely slow to see the danger of her pastoral style of campaigning, and her new, carefully cultivated image as the matron of the nation, photographed with her six cats (she has just got her breeding licence).”
Le Pen is closer to Putin than Macron. She is so disreputable, so hostile to immigrants, that Nigel Farage would have nothing to do with her.
She wants to leave to leave NATO, and to defy the European Union. It she were to win, she might shatter the so far for the most part united western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
So all those of us who want to keep Putin under united western pressure will hope that the opinion polls putting Macron in the lead are correct.
But the result of the French presidential election is not up to us. It is up to the French, who face a question which occurs all over Europe.
What is the future of the nation state? Is it to throw in its lot with a supra-national body, the European Union, even at the expense of national freedom?
Brexit was often written about as if it was a question only for those strange, old-fashioned people the British. Modern nations like France and Germany could not be susceptible to such out-of-date feelings.
But voters in France and Germany do, as it turns out, still have nationalist emotions, and even think those emotions have much to do with freedom and democracy.
The chances are that Macron will once again finesse this problem, and will beat Le Pen. But that does not mean the problem will go away.
What is the place of the nation state within the European Union? The traditional, Napoleonic answer of the French elite was that France’s role was to run the EU.
That is the answer of Macron, the brightest living representative of that elite. But will the French workers and peasants allow him, as the polls at present suggest, to get away with it? Or will they dare, in their bloody-mindedness, to vote for Le Pen, and support her vulgar and illiberal proposals to give immigrants fewer liberties?
One hesitates to ask such a tactless question. The likelihood is still that a majority of French voters will decide Macron is the lesser of two evils.
But even if they do, the question posed by Le Pen will not go away. Why the hell, she demands, should French voters be less free than the British?