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Marine Le Pen’s European plan would be a gift to Putin

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When Emmanuel Macron last faced far-right foe Marine Le Pen for the French presidency in 2017, his call to follow the UK out of the European Union was in tune with populist times. Yet he failed to convince worried voters of the ensuing chaos.

A French Brexit is not on the menu this time, which has made Le Pen more palatable. But what she is proposing in its place is an EU hollowed out from within by France following in the footsteps of the Hungarian Viktor Orban, tearing up German cooperation and shattering unity over Russia. As she and Macron debate ahead of Sunday’s vote, the risks are less extreme than before, but the West still has reason to watch — and worry.

In Le Pen’s worldview, Europe serves two purposes: it is a symbolic punching bag to differentiate itself from the “globalist” Macron – hence the cheap talk of removing EU flags from buildings governmental. It also offers a key outlet for cost reduction. His post-victory pledge is to cut France’s net contribution to the EU budget, ideally by around 5 billion euros ($5.4 billion). These funds could then be spent on extravagant spending plans at home.

The reality is that reopening the already agreed 2021-2027 budget will find few takers. Rather than a Margaret Thatcher-style leader banging his fist on the table to demand France’s money back, Le Pen would likely isolate France and drag it into permanent conflict. With the presidential hopeful equally keen to tackle the EU’s rule of law, give preferential treatment to French products and restore national border controls, France would become the poster child for “less Europe” – a threat always “no Europe” if Le Pen does not do it. t get his way.

As for Le Pen’s ambition to build an alliance of like-minded nations to reclaim powers from Brussels, which of the other 26 EU members would succumb to his twisting charms? Certainly not the southern Member States. Orban, a target of rule of law enforcement in Brussels, would surely appreciate a strong supporter of his illiberal style at Europe’s top table. But even he might resent the prospect of a €5 billion hole in the books, or of Paris tipping the rules of the single market game in his favour.

Admittedly, a Le Pen victory is currently the least likely outcome. Citigroup Inc. strategists put its chances of winning both the presidency and a parliamentary majority at 10% – and the calm in financial markets reflects that.

Still, the race is narrower than it was in 2017. French public opinion is deeply ambivalent about future European integration, even if there is little desire to leave. The risk of a hidden “Frexit”, in which the laws that underpin the single market unravel in its second economy, should not be overlooked. Nor should the possibility of an institutional stalemate be. That all of this is happening in wartime on Europe’s doorstep, as the region’s energy ties are being reshaped, is particularly grim.

One can imagine Vladimir Putin taking advantage of every minute if the Elysée goes to Le Pen, whose party is said to be still repaying a loan from a Russian company, has called for wind farms to be stopped and criticized the tougher sanctions against Russia. Not to mention Le Pen’s stated desire to leave NATO’s integrated command and renegotiate relations with the United States, weakening the transatlantic bond that Putin so despises.

In this scenario, France would continue to have strategic weight as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the EU’s only nuclear power – but it would direct this influence towards new alliances, tearing up cooperation with the EU. Germany for the benefit of a strategic partnership with Russia. and an attempted reset with Brexit Britain. Given the UK’s focus on deepening transatlantic ties, success is hard to imagine.

Le Pen’s rhetoric clearly yearns for de Gaulle’s Cold War greatness. But the general would turn in his grave to see France rid himself of its closest continental ally and its strategic anchor.

Nigel Farage, Brexit’s first cheerleader, thinks a Le Pen victory would be Brussels’ “worst nightmare”. He’s not wrong. Unlike the UK, whose extended departure came with a deadline and an incentive for Europe to pull itself together, a “France First” fight inside the EU would be an accident of car idling.

The spirit of Frexit is alive and well. Macron has little time to counter it.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Centrism can fight populism with populism: Clive Crook

• Macron knows that inflation is Le Pen’s best weapon: Lionel Laurent

• Macron and Le Pen have very different visions of Europe: Bobby Ghosh

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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