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There was a time, not so long ago, when Marine Le Pen aspired to go by another name.

“I will be Madame Frexit if the European Union doesn’t give us back our monetary, legislative, territorial and budget sovereignty,” the leader of France’s far-right National Rally (RN) said in 2015. “Today is the Grexit, tomorrow is the Brexit, and the day after tomorrow it will be the Frexit.”

Of course, there has been no Grexit, as Greece’s leftist Syriza government ultimately decided to fall in line with EU demands to cut public spending in exchange for a bailout. The British, meanwhile, have discovered somewhat pathetically that breaking up is really hard to do.

These days, Ms. Le Pen doesn’t dare evoke her country’s exit from the EU, lest she scare off French voters who have watched British politicians writhe miserably over Brexit deliberations. Indeed, even before British Prime Minister Theresa May destroyed her own career attempting to square the Brexit circle, Ms. Le Pen had concluded that Frexit was a political dead end.

She learned her lesson during the 2017 French presidential race. Back then, her party, then known as the National Front, was calling for France to drop the euro. The common European currency, it claimed, had deprived France of the ability to manage its finances in the national interest, to maximize French jobs and support local companies.

During the presidential debate against Emmanuel Macron, however, Ms. Le Pen struggled to explain her policy, exposing the flawed logic of her economic plan. While she was never really in a position to win – as pro-European forces on the left and right mobilized in support of Mr. Macron – the debate blunder undermined her credibility.

It could have ended her political career. Soon after the election, however, Ms. Le Pen moved to overhaul her party and its platform. In addition to the name change, the party vowed to keep France in the euro zone, conceding that a majority of French citizens remained “attached to the single currency.” The move led to a schism as Ms. Le Pen’s closest adviser, Florian Philippot, quit the RN to form a new Frexit party, Les Patriotes.

Abandoning her Frexit aspirations likely saved Ms. Le Pen and her party from political oblivion. The RN came first in France in last Sunday’s European elections, with about 23.6 per cent of the popular vote, eclipsing Mr. Macron’s own party, La République en Marche, and delivering a blow to the President’s pride and, possibly, agenda. Les Patriotes, meanwhile, captured less than 1 per cent of the vote, falling behind an upstart animal-rights party.

Still, just because she no longer favours a Frexit doesn’t mean Ms. Le Pen wants the EU to survive. By playing fox in the hen house, the RN and its populist allies in the European Parliament now aim to undermine the EU from within. After winning a record number of seats in Sunday’s vote, they vow to use their clout to press for changes that would weaken the powers of the EU and enhance those of national governments on issues such as border control, migration, public spending and the environment.

After Sunday’s vote, MEPs from the RN, Italy’s League, Austria’s Freedom Party, Finland’s Finns Party, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Spain’s Vox and the Dutch Freedom Party will hold about 77 seats in the 751-seat European Parliament, forming a voting bloc called the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group. They aim to join MEPs from other nationalist parties, such as Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party and Hungary’s Fidesz, to neuter EU decrees.

For Ms. Le Pen and Matteo Salvini, whose League party emerged from Sunday’s vote as Italy’s dominant political party, the first order of business will be seeking to scrap EU rules that prevent eurozone governments from running budget deficits in excess of 3 per cent of gross domestic product. Unlike Ms. Le Pen in France, Mr. Salvini actually holds power in his country. And easing EU restrictions would free him to proceed with a promise to implement a flat income tax in Italy, a measure that would see the country’s budget deficit balloon, at least in the short term.

Killing the 3-per-cent limit on budget deficits has become a rallying cry for European populists on the left and right alike. Even so, its existence could be all that is standing in the way of another Euro debt crisis. Italy’s public debt-to-GDP ratio is already 130 per cent and rising, even though eurozone members are supposed to aim for a ratio of no more than 60 per cent.

So, while Europe’s populists are no longer calling for referendums to exit the EU, they are on a stealth campaign to undermine its existence all the same.

Ms. Le Pen could end up as Madame Frexit after all.

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