Berlin can breathe a sigh of relief – for now. Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron has taken the lead in the first round of France’s presidential election, raising hopes in neighboring Germany that its most important European partner will hold the line against a populist wave that threatens to upend the European Union.
The contest, however, is far from over and the final outcome is anything but certain. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was nipping at Mr. Macron’s heels in Sunday’s poll, trailing him by just 2 percentage points in the first round according to preliminary results.
By early Monday morning, with almost all votes counted, Mr. Macron came out ahead with 23.9 percent, while Ms. Le Pen won 21.4 percent of the vote.
The two candidates, neither of whom belongs to France’s main parties, will face off in a second and final round vote in May.
Positioning himself as the anti-Le Pen, Mr. Macron has lavished praise on Chancellor Merkel, saying she saved Europe's dignity by opening Germany's borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees.
The outcome was never certain. Even Mr. Macron was in some danger of slipping out of the top two spots amidst the sudden meteoric rise of a far-left candidate in Jean-Luc Melanchon. And though forecasts have consistently shown Mr. Macron handily beating Ms. Le Pen in the run-off vote, opinion polls have proven notoriously unreliable over the past year, failing to predict Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election.
And the French election campaign has been one of the most unpredictable in the 60-year history of the Fifth Republic. Support for the mainstream parties, the Republicans and the Socialists, has collapsed, leaving political neophytes and populist firebrands to fill the vacuum.
Neighboring Germany has watched the political upheaval with alarm as France seemed poised to join the United States and Britain in rejecting the central pillars of the post-war Western order, leaving Berlin isolated in its defense of free trade, NATO and the European Union.
Chancellor Angela Merkel originally placed her bets on Francois Fillon, inviting the conservative candidate to Berlin in January, but his candidacy imploded in the wake of a corruption scandal, leaving the field open to far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. For weeks, Ms. Le Pen led the polls, capitalizing on the collapse of the mainstream parties with a platform that framed the election not as a contest between the left and the right, but instead “patriots and globalists.”
Ms. Le Pen has vowed to hold referendums on France’s membership in the European Union and the euro zone and declared herself the “anti-Merkel.” It’s no exaggeration to say a victory by Ms. Le Pen would throw the European Union into the deepest existential crisis of its history.
Just as France seemed ready to embrace the far-right firebrand, the 39-year-old darkhorse Emmanuel Macron emerged from behind. Mr. Macron, a former socialist economics minister turned independent, has never held elected office. Like Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Macron has sought to transcend the left-right paradigm, attracting support from both conservatives and socialists.
Mr. Macron, however, has sought to rally the liberal center against the far-left and far-right fringe. He not only supports the European Union but wants to deepen integration by creating a euro-zone budget and joint defense structures. Positioning himself as the anti-Le Pen, Mr. Macron has lavished praise on Chancellor Merkel, saying she saved Europe’s dignity by opening Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees.
The former investment banker has also called for France to liberalize its labor market and make modest cuts to public spending – music to the ears of German policymakers who implemented similar reforms over a decade ago. His approach has won plaudits on both the left and right in Germany.
Yet at first, Berlin did not take Mr. Macron seriously. When he visited the German capital in January, he did not win an audience with Chancellor Merkel. After Mr. Fillon’s implosion, however, Berlin quickly warmed to Mr. Macron as a kind of last-best-hope for Europe. Ms. Merkel met with him in March and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the center-left Social Democrats and once Mr. Macron’s counterpart as economics minister, publicly endorsed him.
In the end, Berlin could end up with a lame duck in Paris. That's certainly not an ideal scenario from the perspective of Germany, but it's far better than a France governed by a self-declared anti-Merkel.
Just as Mr. Macron established himself as the front-runner, the campaign took another twist when the polls started to tighten after far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon delivered a strong debate performance. A left-wing populist, Mr. Melenchon has threatened to take France out of the European Union unless Brussels agrees to end austerity and liberal economic policies. He also wants France to pull out of the NATO military alliance and the International Monetary Fund.
As Mr. Melenchon neared 20 percent in the polls, there was growing concern in Berlin that Europe might have a nightmare scenario on its hands – a runoff between Mr. Melenchon and Ms. Le Pen, leaving the fate of the euro zone’s second-largest economy and the EU’s leading military power, a nuclear armed one to boot, in the hands of far-left and far-right populists.
Ultimately, however, Mr. Macron was able to hold the political center together, much to the relief of observers in Berlin. Mr. Gabriel, speaking to reporters Sunday night during a visit to the Jordanian capital Amman, made clear he stands 100 percent behind the rising French star: “I’m sure [Macron] will be the next French president,” Mr. Gabriel said, praising Mr. Macron as “the only pro-European candidate who didn’t hide behind preconceptions about Europe.”
Yet even if Mr. Macron defeats Ms. Le Pen in the May runoff, France’s political crisis is far from over. Mr. Macron’s recently formed political party, En Marche, has no seats in the National Assembly and is unlikely to win a majority in June parliamentary elections. That would leave him without the legislative support he needs to push through economic reforms and take responsibility in Europe.
In the end, Berlin could end up with a lame duck in Paris. That’s certainly not an ideal scenario from the perspective of Germany, but it’s far better than a France governed by a self-declared anti-Merkel.
Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: email@example.com