The choice French voters make when they go the polls in the second round of the country's presidential election tomorrow will reverberate far beyond their country's borders. Opinion polls suggest Emmanuel Macron is on course for re-election, albeit with a narrower margin of victory than five years ago, when he defeated tomorrow's challenger, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, with 66 per cent of the vote. Indeed, Le Pen's task, while very difficult, is not impossible, and a late swing combined with low turnout overall could close the gap.
In Macron and Le Pen, voters have a very clear choice between an outward-looking liberal centrist who believes France is stronger in the European Union and a conservative nationalist who disdains the EU and trades on nostalgia for a France long gone if it ever existed at all. Macron has weaknesses as a candidate: his arrogance and seeming lack of sensitivity to the pain being felt by many lower-income households has made him deeply unpopular among many voters, even if his progressive policies and success at reducing unemployment are real achievements. Le Pen has focused on the cost of living and owes her rise in support at least partly to her efforts to detoxify her National Rally party and abandon its most unpopular policies, such as leaving the euro.
But the core of the party's ideology remains unchanged: it is a reactionary, nativist outfit that has close ties to Russia, would ban the headscarf and would jeopardise France's leadership role in Europe. Her election would destabilise the EU as it fights crises on multiple fronts, from Ukraine to global warming.
For Macron, re-election would be a personal triumph. But a narrow victory could complicate his claims of a mandate for planned reforms and damage his party’s prospects in upcoming legislative elections. Even with a comfortable victory, the problems highlighted by the campaign will not evaporate overnight. Not the least of those is the rise of Le Pen herself, whose electoral success owes a great deal to deep social fissures that cannot easily be healed.