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The EU should plan for a Marine Le Pen presidency

Summary:
AS USUAL, the president’s first foreign trip is to the chancellery in Berlin. But the meeting with Angela Merkel does not go well. The two women instantly begin squabbling. Accused of breaking Europe’s rules on borders, Mrs Merkel fires back that her visitor has not done her homework: Germany has always acted lawfully. Fine, growls la présidente: if Mrs Merkel wants a war, she will get one. On her return to Paris the president orders the European Union flag removed from official buildings. Soon afterwards she calls, and wins, a referendum on France’s exit from the euro. The streets stir, stockmarkets swoon and Europe reels.This cheerful tale, as depicted in “La Présidente” by François Durpaire and Farid Boudjellal, a graphic novel that imagines Marine Le Pen’s first months as president of France, is not one the rest of Europe wants to hear. The continent’s mood is just starting to brighten. Economies are picking up, and the Islamophobes lost in the Dutch election. Brexit, Europeans think, will be a disaster only for the British. True, the looming cloud in France is hard to ignore: the first round of France’s presidential election is on April 23rd, with a run-off two weeks later, and Ms Le Pen leads most first-round opinion polls. But few seem to have thought seriously about the prospect of her winning, and many dismiss the idea.Confident EurosaursThey have half a point.

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AS USUAL, the president’s first foreign trip is to the chancellery in Berlin. But the meeting with Angela Merkel does not go well. The two women instantly begin squabbling. Accused of breaking Europe’s rules on borders, Mrs Merkel fires back that her visitor has not done her homework: Germany has always acted lawfully. Fine, growls la présidente: if Mrs Merkel wants a war, she will get one. On her return to Paris the president orders the European Union flag removed from official buildings. Soon afterwards she calls, and wins, a referendum on France’s exit from the euro. The streets stir, stockmarkets swoon and Europe reels.

This cheerful tale, as depicted in “La Présidente” by François Durpaire and Farid Boudjellal, a graphic novel that imagines Marine Le Pen’s first months as president of France, is not one the rest of Europe wants to hear. The continent’s mood is just starting to brighten. Economies are picking up, and the Islamophobes lost in the Dutch election. Brexit, Europeans think, will be a disaster only for the British. True, the looming cloud in France is hard to ignore: the first round of France’s presidential election is on April 23rd, with a run-off two weeks later, and Ms Le Pen leads most first-round opinion polls. But few seem to have thought seriously about the prospect of her winning, and many dismiss the idea.

Confident Eurosaurs

They have half a point. Ms Le Pen is unlikely to become president; France’s two-round system inoculates against extremist parties like her National Front. Polls find her losing the run-off by wide margins against all potential challengers. But like the meteor that wiped out Tyrannosaurus Rex, her victory would be a low-probability, high-impact event. Ms Le Pen aims to withdraw France from the euro, the EU’s passport-free Schengen area, and possibly the EU itself. The EU can cope with small troublemakers like Hungary or Greece. But to lose a large founding member would throw its future into question. Betting markets rate her chances between 20-25%; the Eurasia Group, a consultancy, puts them at nearly 40%. These are not numbers that should let Europe sleep easy.

What should Europe expect from a Le Pen presidency? Markets would quail at her desire to quit the euro, which she describes as a “knife in the ribs” of the French economy for denying its exporters the benefits of competitive devaluation. One investor predicts that a Le Pen victory would see French and Italian spreads over German government bonds rise by 2% and the euro slump below parity with the dollar. (Something similar might be expected in the less likely event of a victory for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a hard-left candidate making a late surge.)

The mechanism for leaving the euro, says Ludovic de Danne, Ms Le Pen’s Europe adviser, would be a referendum on exiting the EU altogether. But that faces constitutional barriers, as Ms Le Pen cannot win a majority in legislative elections in June. Moreover, the polarising effect of her election may not leave her much political wriggle-room. French voters have little appetite for a collapse in the value of their assets, or the chaos of capital controls à la grecque that a promised “Frexit” would bring. With markets roiling, French banks under pressure and protesters filling the streets, Ms Le Pen might prefer to park the issue. There are signs of this already; her rhetoric on the euro has cooled in recent weeks.

Tackling migration and security might look more tempting. Unlike Frexit, tightening borders, limiting immigration and cracking down on foreign “posted” workers are popular propositions. Last year 71% of French voters told IFOP, a pollster, that they wanted to scrap Schengen. But that would create as many problems as it solves. Alain Lamassoure, a French former Europe minister, notes that there are around 1,500 border crossings between France and Belgium alone; it is ludicrous to expect them all to be policed. Full withdrawal from Schengen might also mean losing access to EU police databases, which would be an odd way for Ms Le Pen to provide the security she has promised voters.

She might therefore simply tighten existing controls, stepping up checks at airports, railway stations and land crossings. Ms Le Pen would also target foreign-owned firms employing cheap workers from eastern Europe. (Rare is the French politician who declines to pick on Polish plumbers or Romanian labourers.) Taxpayer-funded positions would, says Mr de Danne, be subject to “national preference”: ie, French jobs for French workers. Much of this breaches EU rules, but so what? If Brussels wants to pick a fight, Ms Le Pen would be delighted to oblige.

Ms Le Pen’s approach to the EU may be to denude it of authority by endlessly probing its tolerance. Her promises—income- and corporate-tax cuts, a lower retirement age, more welfare spending—will shatter the euro-zone’s budget-deficit limits. She promises a tax on imports, and monetary financing of state spending by the central bank. The European Commission, which has long tolerated mild French profligacy, would be faced with an acute dilemma. If it allows France to flout the rules, the glue that holds the EU together melts; why should other countries stick by their commitments? If it cracks down, it feeds Ms Le Pen’s narrative that Brussels is thwarting the sovereign will of French voters.

Germany would be left even further adrift. The Franco-German alliance, as Mrs Merkel reminds Ms Le Pen in “La Présidente”, has always driven the EU forwards. But no German chancellor could do business with Ms Le Pen. In real life, her first sally abroad would be not to Berlin but to a summit in Brussels, where she would seek to renegotiate France’s EU membership. It hardly matters if that goes nowhere, for Ms Le Pen’s victory alone would deprive the EU of the oxygen of French support. At best, this would leave it at a standstill. More likely, it would atrophy into a loose club propped up by hollow institutions unable to help governments find solutions to common problems, from trade to migration to climate change. That, more than anything, is why the prospect of la présidente should keep Europeans up at night.

The Economist: Europe
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