A spectre is haunting Paris and Brussels – that Marine Le Pen, long a pariah in French politics, could become president one of the EU's 'foundation' countries. Donald Forbes examines how Le Pen could make history.

The election takes place in May 2022 but already the default assumption is that the Eurosceptic Le Pen will reach the second round runoff and has a strong chance of defeating Macron.

If she does, it will end a decades-long battle by the centre-left and centre-right establishment to exclude the populist right from any share in power. It has polled well with the grassroots electorate for years but has been quarantined by rival party alliances to defeat candidates seen as too far right.

Le Pen heads the Rassemblement National which replaced the Front National. She was defeated by Macron in 2017 by 66% to 34%. When her father Jean-Marie fought Jacques Chirac in 2002, he was beaten much more thoroughly, 80% to 20%.

She defeated Macron in the 2019 European Parliament elections, further evidence that the long standing taboo against the conservative-right is shrinking from one election to the next, a prospect regarded with horror by liberals.

The EU has conservative-right member states such as Hungary and Poland which make awkward partners. Denmark, although governed by the centre-left, is enacting controversial immigration policies usually associated with the right. France, however, is different. It would be a game-changer to have a populist government in Paris. For Brussels, it would be as disruptive as Brexit.

The EU's cherished economic and political union is not on Marine's radar. She no longer wants to leave the EU and the euro but she wants less intrusion from Brussels in national decision-making. Her slogan in 2019 was a "Europe des Nations" which echoed de Gaulle's "Europe des Patries". Same difference.

A caveat should be entered here about the consequences of Le Pen winning the presidency .

In recent years, French presidential elections have been followed within weeks by a renewal of the National Assembly in elections that gave the president a working majority. This benefitted Macron although he was relatively unknown and his new party, the LREM, was put together with many MPs who were new to national politics.

Without a working majority, the presidency's quasi-monarchical powers evaporate as Jacques Chirac discovered when he lost his majority in 1997 to the Socialists. He became a bystander for the following five years, reduced to presiding at cabinet meetings although he still represented France at EU and international summits

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So Le Pen faces two hurdles. She must win the presidency. Then she must persuade voters to trust her with a working majority rather than bridle her with a hostile National Assembly that might not even confirm a prime minister from her own party. The Rassemblement has only six MPs, including Marine, out of 577 in the current parliament.

Under Marine, her party has undergone serious housekeeping. Her father's FN, which he founded in 1972, was regarded as racist, xenophobic, anti-semitic and anti-EU. Marine has not only lowered the decibels on Europe, she has softened or dumped policies that offended liberals.

Apart from the name change, The Rassemblement now accepts abortion and dropped its opposition to civil unions, including for gays although it is still against same-sex marriage, legal in France for eight years. Restoration of the death penalty has also gone. It still wants to leave NATO and severely reduce immigration.

Le Pen has fought off inter-party challenges with a toughness Mrs Thatcher would have recognised. Unlike Jean-Marie, who shocked by dismissing the Holocaust as a mere historical detail, her political legitimacy is recognised by the media.

Macron meanwhile is caught in the Covid trap which has destroyed his planned re-election path and sapped his popularity. A suave former Rothschilds banker, he has a reputation for arrogance – nickname, Jupiter.

Most recently, he has been accused of mismanaging the roll out of vaccines against Covid. The media compared him unfavourably with the UK and the US.

With his popularity below 40%, he even toyed in a media interview with the idea of following his predecessor, François Hollande, in not seeking re-election. "Maybe I won't be a candidate".

This sounds like kamikaze politics and may be no more than playing mind games. On the other hand, the attempt while he still has a majority to pass reforms could galvanise France.

Macron has been criticised for not carrying out social security and pension reforms whose unpopularity has hamstrung all recent presidents. The problem is that even if he did try to ram them through, the unions would take to the streets as ever. It's a characteristic of France that everyone has a vested interest, owed to the government, that he wants to protect no matter how trivial.

Whether Macron runs or not and whether Marine wins or not, the presidential contest will pit pro-EU and anti-EU candidates against each other. The EU as well as the French will be on tenterhooks about their future.

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