Emmanuel Macron was judged the winner of the French TV debate on Wednesday, the last before Sunday's presidential run-off vote, but his opponent Marine Le Pen did manage to fire off a few zingers. Her best line? "France will be led by a woman, either me or Mrs. Merkel," she thundered.
The line hit home among Euroskeptics, not exactly a small crowd in France. Among the supporters of Ms. Le Pen and her anti-euro, anti-European Union and anti-immigrant agenda, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is viewed as the ultimate EU power and a great threat to French sovereignty. They see Mr. Macron, the pro-EU centrist candidate who is openly endorsed by Ms. Merkel (and Barack Obama) as Ms. Merkel's lap dog in waiting.
They are wrong. While Ms. Merkel would consider a victory by Ms. Le Pen an unmitigated disaster, and probably trigger the EU's destruction, her endorsement of Mr. Macron's EU integration ideas is unlikely.
Germany may be pro-EU and pro-euro, and relishes the idea of an EU cheerleader as French president. But it has consistently put the brakes on integration moves in recent years. Germany considers the broken EU economies, such as Italy and Greece, the authors of their own misfortune.
More integration, in Germany's view, would merely reward the sinners.
Euro bonds, an EU finance minister and common fiscal policy? Forget it. Germany has even balked at endorsing a full banking union even though one would help prevent another banking crisis. Nine years after the 2008 financial collapse, Europe's banks have yet to be fully repaired and remain in a parlous state in some spots, notably Italy. Since sickly banks don't like making loans, employment growth has suffered, fuelling the rise of the populist parties such as Ms. Le Pen's National Front.
Mr. Macron has had a remarkably good run even though Ms. Le Pen has come on strong. Luck can take some of the credit. François Fillon, the conservative Republican candidate who idolized Margaret Thatcher and promised to shrink the government, was the early leader in the 11-horse race, only to be hobbled by the discovery of his wife's allegedly fake job as a parliamentary aide.
With Mr. Fillon conveniently sidelined, Mr. Macron rose to the top and won the first round of the presidential poll, on April 23, with 24 per cent of the vote. Ms. Le Pen placed second, with 21 per cent.
Unlike American and British pollsters, French pollsters tend to be fairly reliable. The polls have been consistent in recent weeks, with Mr. Macron on about 60 per cent to Ms. Le Pen's 40 per cent.
Still, Ms. Le Pen could win if voter turnout is extremely low – her supporters will come out in force – or if supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the firebrand, Communist-backed candidate who won 19 per cent of the first-round vote, shift en masse to Ms. Le Pen (Mr. Mélenchon has refused to endorse either Mr. Macron or Ms. Le Pen). That scenario seems highly unlikely.
In all likelihood, Mr. Macron will be president next week and the easy part will be over. The baggage he dragged into the campaign will not disappear. With some success, Ms. Le Pen has painted him as a neo-liberal hack who represents the establishment – he's a former Rothschild banker – and the broken EU order that delivered Brexit. Certainly, he did not distinguish himself during his year-long stint as economy minister in the deeply unpopular Socialist government of President François Hollande.
The upshot is that his fledgling party, En Marche!, may not win a majority in the June parliamentary elections. If it comes up short, Mr. Macron's agenda to reform the French economy and emerge as the champion of European integration may fall apart. On the latter, he should give up, at least for a while.
"Anyone who expects Berlin to support some form of debt mutualization to help shore up southern Europe's economies is deluding themselves," says Nicholas Spiro, a partner at London's Lauressa Advisory. "It's just not going to happen."
Fixing France before fixing the euro zone would be the smarter pursuit. France is an economic laggard. The unemployment rate is stuck at close to 10 per cent and the youth jobless rate is an atrocious 25 per cent. Large regions of the country, such as the northeast, are losing factories at an alarming rate. Not surprisingly, Ms. Len Pen and her anti-globalization war cry play well among voters who are pessimistic about their economic prospects.
Mr. Macron wants to shrink the civil service by 120,000 workers, simplify the labour code to make hiring and firing easier, spend €50-billion (about $75-billion) over five years on infrastructure, retraining and the environment and scrap the 35-hour work-week limit. If he wins a majority in parliament, he might be able to pull off his domestic reform agenda, all the more so since the euro zone economy, finally, is moving in the right direction. Germany could do its bit by inflating its economy, which would push up French demand.
Taking on euro zone integration first would be madness, all the more so since some 40 per cent of voters, probably more if you count Mr. Mélenchon's Euroskeptic base, have no interest in a Europe-first policy.
Unless the French start feeling more secure about their futures, the forces that have made Ms. Le Pen a serious contender for the presidency won't disappear. A Macron victory does not necessarily mean that populism has peaked in Europe.
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