This article was published on HuffPost
We could call them red-, white- and blue-tinted spectacles. Since the vote to leave the European Union, there is a tendency in Britain to view European politics through the lens of Brexit. Every vote – from the Austrian presidential election to the Italian constitutional referendum and the Dutch general election – is seen as a vote on the EU.
The same has happened in the French presidential election, where on Sunday far-right Marine Le Pen will face off against centrist Emmanuel Macron in the second round. Le Pen is opposed to the European Union; Macron wants to strengthen it.
Despite the fact she is almost certain to lose, Le Pen seems to have attracted more attention in our media than Macron. She only finished second in the first round but The Daily Mail front page told readers the next day: “Le Pen’s Far Right in Poll Surge” and “Now voters will have say on Frexit.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many more Leave voters think it would be better for the UK if Marine Le Pen wins the presidency rather than Emmanuel Macron, according to a YouGov poll (37 percent to six percent). Nigel Farage backs her (it is worth remembering that in 2014 UKIP rejected an offer of alliance with Le Pen’s National Front party because of the latter’s “prejudice and anti-Semitism”). Brendan O’Neill in The Spectator celebrates Le Pen’s debate line that: “France will be led by a woman – it will be either me or Mrs Merkel.”
The line of thinking presumably goes like this. Macron is pro-EU and will try to punish Britain for Brexit. Le Pen wants to take France out of the EU, and so will weaken the organisation.
Marine Le Pen’s party, the National Front, has long been considered beyond the pale by mainstream French politicians. It was founded and led for most of its life by Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie, who called Nazi gas chambers a “detail” of history. The man Marine appointed as her replacement as leader last week quit after allegations he denied the existence of those gas chambers. Marine has compared Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation.
This may not bother people who think British foreign policy should be based on a strictly transactional, self-interested basis. Yet even on these terms, Britons should be hoping for a Macron win.
A Le Pen presidency certainly would damage the EU and the Eurozone. She has pledged to leave the Euro and hold a referendum on Frexit (after negotiations with the EU). Whether she would manage to do this is another matter, as she would likely be a weak president without a parliamentary majority.
Nevertheless, the uncertainty would scare off investors, perhaps leading to capital controls. The European Union has long been based on a balancing of German and French power. With one half of the duo not playing ball, it is hard to see how it could continue in its current form.
However, Brexit is not a zero-sum game: what is bad for the EU is not necessarily good for Britain. Given that 44 percent of our exports go to the European Union, our economy would be heavily exposed to the damage Le Pen would cause. Getting a bad deal under Macron is better than having no European Union to trade with at all.
But wouldn’t a Le Pen government give us a good bilateral trade deal? Well, she dislikes the EU because she claims having borders so open to foreign capital and workers is detrimental to France. She wants to tax imports and make it harder for French companies to employ foreigners: hardly a good sign for British businesses wanting to operate across the channel.
On other aspects of foreign policy she diverges from our interests. She is an admirer of Vladimir Putin, believes Crimea has “always been Russian” and thinks EU sanctions on the country should be lifted. She would also like France to quit NATO.
Many Brexiteers think the EU should and perhaps will fail whatever happens. A Le Pen victory would therefore just put the whole thing out of its misery sooner rather than later. With the zeal of the revolutionary, some Brexiteers are impatient to see the old order burn down and a new one emerge.
Except, that is not how the rest of Europe sees it. The EU faces many challenges, but its immediate demise looks unlikely. Even in France, Le Pen’s Euroscepticism has been a hindrance to her campaign, scaring off wealthier conservatives who fear the effect on the economy. Leaving a political and economic union is one thing, unravelling yourself from a shared currency is another.
In Germany, which holds its elections this autumn, the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany party is at just under ten percent in the polls. If Angela Merkel does not win, the new chancellor will be Martin Schulz, another pro-European.
There’s an expression in French for doing damage to something which then harms you as well: ‘cutting off the branch on which you are sitting’. I think ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’ sounds better.