A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism”, so wrote Karl Marx in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto. Today, another spectre haunts Europe — that of nationalism. It is a spectre which has been haunting Europe for some time now and which on April 23 may loom again. The occasion is the first round in the French presidential polls, and the spectre takes the form of Marine Le Pen, leader of the nationalist Front National and presidential hopeful. Ms Le Pen, 49, an articulate former advocate, took over the leadership from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen six years ago. He was a bruiser of the hard right, prone to anti-Semitic jibes and suspected of having tortured guerrillas during the Algerian uprising against French rule. His daughter has worked hard to modernise the party and remove its nastier elements. Even so, Ms Le Pen’s programme is extreme. If elected, she would cosy up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, seek to take France out of the European Union, close its borders, institute economic protectionism and launch a culture war against France’s Muslims, some 10 per cent of the population. Against her range candidates from the hard left to the conservative right, but the frontrunner is probably Emmanuel Macron.
He is 39, a former banker and graduate of France’s elite institution for top officials, École Nationale d’Administration, married to his schoolteacher 24 years his senior, and without a formal party machine behind him. His programme is diametrically opposed to Ms Le Pen’s: a supporter of the European Union, a believer in free trade, open borders, and a staunch defender of liberal values. Opinion polls suggest that Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron are neck and neck, with about 25 per cent of the vote each. Opinion polls also suggest that Ms Le Pen would lose against Mr Macron in the second round runoff two weeks later, with about 35 per cent of the vote. If so, that would be the highest vote ever in a French presidential election for the extreme right, roughly twice her father’s vote in 2002. But the opinion polls also suggest that some 30 per cent of voters remain undecided, and another 30 per cent may not vote. The result is, therefore, wide open and the outcome highly uncertain. This uncertainty is accentuated because Ms Le Pen seems able to attract support from the most unpredictable places. A little while ago I was passing a minor manor house in the village where I live in France. I saw plastered on the entrance sign a Front National poster. The property is owned by a couple who run it as a guesthouse. She, slight, possibly of Mediterranean origin, vaguely bohemian in style; he stocky, ruddy-faced and down-to-earth; both apparently pragmatic, reasonable and comfortable; neither giving any clue that they are active supporters of Ms Le Pen.
On the other side of the political divide, more recently I struck up a conversation with a young woman, a lawyer by training, once a volunteer helper at the so-called “Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais. She explained to me that none of the candidates spoke to people of her generation, like her: educated, motivated, internationalist and generous-minded. The hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon has a programme which in practical terms is much like Ms Le Pen’s, save for the Islamophobic elements. François Fillon, the traditional right-wing candidate, has a programme of social conservatism which appears to be “Le Pen-lite”. Anyway, he is embroiled in a corruption investigation involving illegal payments of public money to his wife and children. Benoît Hamon, the moderate-left candidate of the Socialists, is trailing badly in the polls and has been eclipsed by Mr Mélechon. That leaves Mr Macron. And that is the problem for Mr Macron. His support is indifferent and lukewarm. Ms Le Pen’s support, on the other hand, is fervent and committed. One of the students I taught in Paris put it very well: she asks the right questions, but her answers are wholly wrong. Wholly wrong certainly, but also highly persuasive. The questions are how to address economic dislocation and stagnation and how to create a sense of community and coherence as France becomes multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. Ms Le Pen’s answer is a programme of “national priority”, neatly summed up as “France for the French”. To that segment of the electorate which feels culturally and economically insecure, Ms Le Pen gives the reassurance that she understands them. She plays to their sense that they are an embattled people, menaced by the liberal elite, the forces of globalisation and the Islamisation of France. She, and she alone, will defend them.
Mr Macron’s appeal is more cerebral. He refers to himself as “doubly liberal”: politically and economically. The concern is that an appeal to people’s intelligence and better natures when they are feeling uncertain and anxious does not have traction. Important as the choice between Ms Len Pen and Mr Macron is for France, it is doubly important for Europe. The French presidential election is another in a sequence of elections where the fight has been between differing conceptions of Europe — atavistic Europe against altruistic Europe. First came the Hungarian parliamentary elections in 2010, won by Viktor Orban. In power ever since, he proudly claims that he wants an “illiberal democracy”. Next came the Polish parliamentary elections in 2015, won by the like-minded Law and Justice Party. Then came the UK’s vote by the slimmest of margins in mid-2016 to leave the European Union: another victory for nationalism and intolerance. The first reverse came at the end of 2016 in the Austrian presidential polls, where the far-right candidate was defeated by a narrow margin. The second reverse happened in the Dutch parliamentary elections in March, when the nationalist Freedom Party failed to make an expected breakthrough, although its vote did increase. But these contests were relative sideshows. France is the main event. France, the home of the Rights of Man, the second largest economy in Europe, one of two European nuclear powers (the other being the UK), is a founder member of the European Union. The Franco-German alliance is the axis around which Europe revolves. Without France, European integration comes to a stop and European coherence dissolves. A victory for Ms Le Pen would be a mortal blow to the European Union and a fatal relapse into Europe’s dark past. A victory for Mr Macron would allow Europe to breathe a sigh of relief, but celebration would be misplaced. There is still much to be done to exorcise the spectre....