Monday, April 24, 2017

After French Vote, European Leaders Come Out Against Le Pen. But What If She Wins?
 Emmanuel Macron celebrates after winning the first round in French presidential election on April 23, 2017. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

By Griff Witte
April 24 at 6:28 AM

BERLIN — With the future of Europe in French hands, the continent’s leaders have cast aside their tradition of staying out of each other’s elections and weighed in with some unsolicited advice: Pick the candidate who wants to make the European Union stronger, not the one who wants to blow it up.

Hearty endorsements of independent centrist Emmanuel Macron — and the stinging dismissals of her far-right rival, Marine Le Pen — came from across European capitals in the hours after French voters whittled their presidential choices to two on Sunday.

If Macron wins, continental leaders are cautiously optimistic that he can steer the beleaguered country back into an historically central role in European affairs. If Le Pen wins, modern Europe — defined by integration and growing cooperation across national boundaries — could fall apart after already being jolted by Britain’s planned E.U. exit.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s top adviser, Peter Altmaier, chimed in to say that Macron’s first-place finish showed “France AND Europe can win together. The center is stronger than the populists think!”

Although the preferences were no surprise, the decision by presidents, prime ministers and other senior officials to so vocally involve themselves in a democratic election outside their national boundaries marked a striking break with precedent.

Leaders normally maintain a studious silence when the vote isn’t on their turf. That they didn’t in this case reflects the gravity for Europe of the choice French voters face when they next go to the polls on May 7.

“The situation is now so tense that they’re making an exception to the rules,” said Claire Demesmay, who studies France for the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Yet by publicly wading into the French vote, Europe’s powers-that-be are taking at least two major risks. One is that by backing Macron, they will only fan the flames of anti-establishment ire that have propelled Le Pen’s rise.

“It may be counterproductive,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It could reinforce some of the discontent in France among those who will see this as the global elite denying them their right to vote.”

The other potential pitfall is that it could make it even more difficult to work with Le Pen if she defies the polls and wins. For months before Americans voted last year, European leaders denounced Donald Trump — only to have to make amends this year with solicitous visits to the new U.S. president at the White House.

Trump said last week following a Paris terrorist attack that left a police officer dead that Le Pen would “do well” in the election, and called her the “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.” But Janning said that by publicly speaking out against Le Pen, Europe’s establishment appears to be discounting her chances.

“It would have been dumb to speak out in the way they did if they thought she could still win,” he said. “They seem to view that possibility as close to zero.”

As Europe digested the first-round results Monday morning, there was other evidence of a heavy bet on Macron’s prospects.

The French stock market jumped four percent in morning trading, and the euro leapt to a five-month high.

In Berlin, the banner headline on the mass-market tabloid Bild, above a photo of a jubilant Macron, was: “Europe breathes a sigh of relief.”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel even waded into the realm of political prognostication, telling reporters that “I am sure [Macron] will become the new French president.”

There were several reasons for optimism among pro-Europeans.

One was the fact that Europe had avoided what many regarded as a nightmare final round matchup between Le Pen and the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Although the pair come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, they share a hostility toward the European Union and NATO.

Pro-Europeans were also buoyed by the fact that Macron had bested Le Pen in the first round, vindicating pre-election polls that had him ahead and offering no evidence of an unforeseen far-right surge.

And although the first-round result was tight — 24 percent to 21 percent — surveys show Macron enjoying a much-healthier advantage of 16 points or more in the final showdown two weeks from now.

Even as the European establishment rallied around Macron, far-right leaders and voters across Europe were cheering Le Pen, who has vowed to hold a French referendum on E.U. membership and who denounces the 28-member bloc at every turn.

André Poggenburg, a state-level chairman with the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, tweeted his congratulations to the 48-year-old and described the runoff as a choice “between E(U)stablishment and patriotism!”

Nigel Farage, the British anti-E.U. politician who helped lead last year’s Brexit campaign, wrote dismissively that Macron gave his victory speech Sunday night “with E.U. flag behind him. Says it all.”

Indeed, at a time of rising nationalist sentiment in Europe, when the E.U.’s popularity is on the wane, Macron has stood apart for his unabashed pro-European views.

The union’s blue flags with yellow stars have been a feature of the 39-year-old’s rallies, alongside the French tricolor. And he has promised if elected to help lead “an ambitious Europe,” restoring France to a preeminent place in the E.U. after years in which the French role has been diminished by its own domestic struggles with unemployment, terrorism and political dysfunction.

Macron’s willingness to passionately defend Europe prompted liberal German lawmaker Alexander Lambsdorff to describe him Monday on Germany’s ZDF television as “a French John F. Kennedy.”

But analysts suggested that even if Macron wins, Europe’s mainstream will need to keep its expectations in check for what he can achieve given overall public sentiment. Taken together, anti-E.U. politicians won nearly half the first round vote.

“It may be that Europe’s leaders have an over-interpretation of the role Macron can play,” said Demesmay. “The anti-European mood in France will still be there — and it could increase.”

Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

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