Let’s cut to the proverbial chase: what will Marine Le Pen do if she reaches the Elysee? The truth is that we don’t know, and neither, probably, does she. As we witnessed with Brexiteers and Trump: often the populists don’t have a plan beyond winning.
She’s given clues, of course. She’s said she will withdraw France once again (as de Gaulle did) from NATO’s military command (but not seemingly NATO itself) and it’s not unreasonable to think that she will stop French support for Ukraine. She has suggested that she does not feel France is bound by NATO’s article 5 guarantee to defend any NATO member that is attacked. If true, that is huge, because France is physically vital to NATO’s defence of Europe. A Europe without French access will struggle to be supplied by the US. It would, in short, be an act of treason against Europe.
She has also hinted that she will act on immigration but has been vague on what that means. Certainly restricting incoming immigration, and possible repatriation. Brexiteers cheering her on might be careful for what they wish, under the idea that she will happily hold onto illegal immigrants for Britain. She could just as easily use the UK as a safety valve for transiting illegals.
It’s her sweeping statements about the EU that will be most closely watched. She has hinted that she will adopt an Orban-style approach to Europe: keeping the bits she likes and just ignoring the bits she doesn’t. That’s going to be the biggest challenge for both her and the EU. Orban was able to get around it because Hungary is a small country and has chosen to exist on the European periphery. But France is not Hungary. France is a founder nation, arguably THE founder nation, and one of the two essential nations within the EU. If France refuses to participate in the EU within the broad rules, then the EU stops functioning.
Le Pen has suggested that she will discriminate against non-French workers and businesses, including those from other EU states. This sounds clever in the way Brexiteers thought, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, that they held all the cards. Le Pen seems to believe, as they did, that the rest of the EU will allow France to benefit from freedom from European rules whilst expecting others to comply when those rules benefit France. Brexiteers think that Le Pen wishes to create a non-political European common market, but that simply isn’t true: she’s far closer economically to Corbyn than Johnson, and is a protectionist by instinct. France’s sheer economic heft in the EU means that can’t be permitted by the rest of the EU, because it is a threat to their own economic self interests. It’s true that France, like Germany, is held to a different standard than other EU countries. That is the reality of being large powerful countries. But only up to a point.
The problem for Le Pen is that whilst she can take decisions to ignore EU rules, the decision to do that will allow France’s peers, Germany, Italy, Spain and others to then apply those rules to themselves certainly with regard to French workers and businesses. It’s a very high-risk and possibly counter-productive policy that could end up damaging France’s exports to the rest of Europe, an issue France has not had to deal with in 60 years. French farmers may cheer if Irish butter or Spanish olive oil is banned from French supermarkets: but not so much when French butter and olive oil is then banned from every other EU supermarket. If there is one thing history has taught us, it is that France does best working with allies. It cannot progress in a vacuum. Even the United States can’t do that.
But perhaps that’s what she wants? An excuse to start a fight with the EU to then justify a Frexit referendum? From an Irish perspective, we need to be very alert to this. We could survive either the UK or France leaving Europe, but both could cripple us.