Dominique Moisi is senior counsellor at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.
There was a time, immediately after German reunification in 1990, when many French feared Germany. Today, the roles are reversed. But Germans are not afraid so much of France as for it. In the wake of June's Brexit referendum in Britain and Donald Trump's triumph earlier this month in the U.S. presidential election, France, too, could fall victim to destructive populist forces, if voters choose the far-right National Front's Marine Le Pen as their next president.
Germans may be pleased to see Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to by U.S. media as "the liberal West's last defender" – an island of stability in an ocean of chaos. But it is one thing to be described as the best pupil in class. Germany is used to that. It is quite another to feel like the only pupil showing up at all.
With the United States out, there are indeed few decent pupils left. Though Mr. Trump has backed away from some of his more radical campaign promises, he is unlikely to drop his "America first" approach; as a result, the United States may be about to break decisively with the universalism and global engagement that has characterized the past 70 years.
The situation is no better in Europe. Poland is following in Hungary's illiberal footsteps. Austria, another German neighbour, may well be about to elect the far-right nationalist Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer as president. And the British are on their way out of the European Union altogether.
Yet none of this will be as destabilizing for Germany as a Le Pen presidency in France. A Le Pen victory would amount to abandonment not just of Germany, but also of the values, principles, and norms that have enabled Germany to reconcile with itself and its neighbours, beginning with France. It would sever the Franco-German axis around which the EU rotates.
What is needed now is precisely the opposite: a reset of Franco-German relations. The reality is that Germany and France have not played in the same league for a while. It is not that Germany has become too strong, as it may have seemed in the period following reunification, but rather that France has become too weak, leaving Germany to lead the way in addressing Europe's myriad crises in recent years.
Now, Germany is widely viewed as Europe's hegemon. It was in Ms. Merkel's hands that U.S. President Barack Obama placed the torch of democracy following Mr. Trump's victory, during his final official tour of Europe.
But Ms. Merkel cannot carry that torch alone. France must stand with Germany, shoulder to shoulder, as it once did. For that to happen, France must be as tall, strong, confident and present as Germany. It must renew itself, guided by its own long-held values – values that Ms. Le Pen and her National Front do not share.
France does not need to match Germany's economic might. What it can offer nowadays is at least as important. With Europe facing a combination of external threats, such as turmoil in the Middle East and Russian adventurism, and internal challenges, such as homegrown terrorism, security and defence cannot take a back seat to economic policy. And, in these areas, France has real comparative advantages.
Given the risks confronting Europe, not to mention Mr. Trump's isolationist tendencies, the Franco-German relationship will assume greater regional and global importance. With Ms. Le Pen in charge, that relationship will almost certainly suffer, driving events in a dangerous direction.
To be sure, France's two-round voting system, which ensures that the president obtains the support of a majority of voters, makes it extremely unlikely that a radical candidate such as Ms. Le Pen can take power. But, given the electoral upsets that have taken place lately, Germans will probably not be reassured until after the votes are counted. After all, if Ms. Le Pen does manage to succeed in France's run-off system, she will gain a strong and genuine mandate to implement policies that controvert everything postwar Germany – and, indeed, the EU – is supposed to stand for.
Of course, Germany has its own political challenges to overcome, with federal elections set for next October. Recent state elections indicated a popular mood that is suspicious of openness, particularly to refugees. If Germany is to remain the pillar of stability that it has been in recent years, it must avoid going any farther down that path, and instead deliver a fourth premiership to Ms. Merkel.
In any case, France's political trajectory will be decided well before Germany's. To ensure a safe and prosperous future, French voters must support a person of authority, wisdom and experience, who is willing and able to undertake urgently needed reforms without exacerbating social divisions – someone wholly unlike Ms. Le Pen. In doing so, they would prove that the current wave of right-wing populism can be resisted. And they would give the European project a real shot at continued success.