Marine Le Pen

Willful Ignorance Will Not Save Europe

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    France will hold presidential elections in April and May. Anti-E.U. politician, Marine Le Pen, looks increasingly likely to get to the final round, at which stage she is predicted to lose. But what happens if she wins?

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Despite corruption scandals for two for them, presidential candidates François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen are still expected to gain the most votes in the first round of voting in April.
    • At that stage, the top two candidates go forward into a final round of voting. Ms. Le Pen is expected to make it to this round but at this stage, most pundits say she would be defeated.
    • The French elections remain hard to predict though, with some polls showing that about half of French voters are still undecided.
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    Audio

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Marine Le Pen, French National Front  political party leader and Member of the European Parliament takes part in a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg
Always the bridesmaid? French presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, of the right wing Front National. Source: Reuters

If Marine Le Pen were to become the French president, it would be a catastrophe for everyone who wants an open and functioning Europe. Although, admittedly, it is a catastrophe we could have seen coming. The date for the second, decisive round of the French presidential election, May 7, has been set for months. For many months now, those governing in Berlin and Brussels have been able to follow how the head of the Front National has been coming closer, step by measured step, to her goal, the top seat in the Élysée Palace.

Which begs the question: what will the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her fellow leaders do if the worst was to happen. What are their plans for the day after?

Anyone listening in, along the hallways of ministries in Berlin and Brussels and in business and government circles will make an astounding discovery. Everyone is spending their days anxious. Whether minister or diplomat, banker or European commissioner, they are hoping and fearing, trying not to think about it and wringing their hands. There is just one thing they are obviously not doing: They are not preparing for the worst.

There are many reasons why Ms. Le Pen won't win the election. Because, because, because. The Berlin diplomat lines them up like prayer beads on a string.

So, what if Marine Le Pen were to win?

“We are trusting in the common sense of the French,” says a European commissioner in Brussels. Strictly off the record, of course. No one wants to be mentioned by name. The fear is Ms. Le Pen could take advantage of any such public statements.

What if it doesn’t turn out that way: What if French anger is greater than French common sense?

“We don’t anticipate that.”

But wouldn’t it be reasonable to make contingency plans?

“No, no . . .” The commissioner falls silent.

Many in Berlin are also clinging to the hope that what shouldn’t happen, won’t. To be sure, a Le Pen election victory would be like “a nuclear bomb for Europe,” a high-ranking German diplomat admits. But no, he quickly adds, that’s not going to happen.

“That’s impossible.”

Why?

Because the Front National doesn’t have a large enough voter base. Because so far Ms. Le Pen has never gotten more than 6.8 million votes in nationwide elections; 45 million French voters are eligible to cast their ballots. Because the opposition is too great and because Ms. Le Pen, even if she were to take the lead in the first ballot, wouldn’t have a chance in the run-off. Because, because, because. There are many reasons – given “sober analysis” – that speak against Ms. Le Pen winning the election. The Berlin diplomat lines them up like prayer beads on a string. The transition from sober analysis to wishful thinking is fluid though.

Those in authority should know better. They also tried to reassure themselves prior to the British referendum and the presidential elections in the United States. Back then, they also noted that common sense, history and electoral numbers stood against Mr. Trump and a Brexit. And so far the election campaign has been going very well for Ms. Le Pen. Her rivals are stumbling, or they are undermining themselves. The polling institutions continue to put the nationalists in first place, for the first ballot.

At least last year, when faced with the threat of a Brexit, Germany’s foreign office had something resembling an emergency plan. The British had barely voted and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, foreign minister at the time, called together his colleagues from the European Union’s other founding member states to meet in Villa Borsig in Berlin. Foreign ministers from France, Italy, Germany, and the Benelux states jointly declared their intention to strengthen the E.U. more than ever. The meeting was a confident demonstration even if it was mostly symbolic. And a working group in the foreign office had prepared for that day for months, and they did so jointly with their colleagues from the French foreign office. Angela Merkel even telephoned François Hollande that night.

German Economy Minister Gabriel and French counterpart Macron leave after news conference in Berlin
If Ms. Le Pen wins, who will Germany call? German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel with Emmanuel Macron in 2014. Mr. Macron is now running for president and for the first time this week, polls put him ahead of Ms. Le Pen. Source: Reuters

But who will she call this time? And with whom should German diplomats coordinate? There would no partners in Paris anymore. Apart from the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, also known as the AfD, no one has been in touch with the Front National.

Marine Le Pen has left no doubts about her goals. It is time to “do away” with the E.U. she reiterated only a few days ago. People close to her stress that the project with the highest priority during the first months of her presidency will be France’s exit from the euro. So whoever votes for Ms. Le Pen knows exactly what they are voting for.

Still, she would need the support of the French parliament for such consequential decisions (unless of course, she sets up a state-of-emergency government). French parliamentary elections are slated to be held in June. So if Ms. Le Pen were elected president, the French would ostensibly be able to correct, or at least blunt, their decision just a month later. Moreover, Ms. Le Pen has said she would consider holding referendums in which the French would vote again, on exiting the euro and the European Union.

So Ms. Le Pen wouldn’t be able to do what she has said – not quickly, anyway. This is the second hope many in Berlin and Brussels are currently clinging to. Even if the Front National leader wins, they say, nothing has been decided, the fate of the E.U. and the euro is in no way sealed. So that’s why, or so the argument goes, it is still too early for any sort of emergency planning.

A high-ranking Berlin government official ventures a bold comparison: “A President Le Pen would be like a caged lion. She can roar loudly but she can actually cause no harm.”

Really? Whatever happens, unrest in financial markets grows worse, the closer election day comes. Trading in French government bonds has doubled, an indication that the country is under increasing financial pressure.

The financial world cannot imagine the worst case scenario either though, a French exit from the euro. According to a leading central banker, if Ms. Le Pen were to become president but without a parliamentary majority, there could be a short, sharp shock to financial markets. But the European Central Bank, based in Frankfurt, would easily calm things by injecting additional cash into the system. So the word in Frankfurt is that no emergency planning is necessary right now.

Over the past few weeks, Front National emissaries have been meeting with analysts from the major investment companies in Paris, Brussels, and Strasbourg,  including the American asset manager BlackRock, to promote their plans. A high-ranking investment banker says the meetings reminded him of encounters with the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. He also had some radical plans but ultimately he was unable to implement them at all.

Politicians in the German federal government are also invoking the Greek experience. Two years ago, the Greek voters elected a government there, basically rubber stamping that party’s anti-euro position. But when Greeks got an inkling of what an exit from the monetary union would mean in concrete terms, their enthusiasm for a return to the drachma was diminished. The hope is that the French would be similarly disillusioned, if it came to that.

But one must also admit that the French contribution to European economic output is many times greater than that of Greece. And, compared to Marine Le Pen’s raw political power, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras looks like a harmless stripling.

The E.U. could conceivably continue to stumble along for a while, without France and Great Britain, but become a mere shadow of the former currency union.

That is why, alongside hope and repression, there is a third answer to the question as to why no one is preparing for the worst in any serious way. And it is at once the most honest, and most disturbing, answer. A Le Pen victory is simply too much of a nightmare, too monstrous a thing, to even comprehend. The consequences of a Brexit seemed comprehensible, they could be planned for. A Frexit could not.

If Ms. Le Pen were to make good on her campaign statements and steer France out of the euro and the E.U., it would be the end of the European Union and the single currency. The idea that Europe could position itself as a liberal counterweight to rampant nationalism and authoritarianism would also be passé. “It is,” says a high-ranking government representative in Berlin, “as if our whole world would have to be reinvented. It is just too much.”

The repercussions for the European financial system would be drastic. In all probability, France would immediately be declared bankrupt because the highly-indebted government would no longer be able to pay back its creditors in the promised euros and would be forced to revert to freshly-printed French francs.

France’s creditors would be robbed of their money, because it is generally expected the new currency would quickly drop in value. French banks would be threatened with collapse because the French people would empty out their savings accounts before the currency changeover. Many French companies would also become insolvent, there would be the threat of mass bankruptcies and there would be an economic crash so large that, in the opinion of European Central Bank insiders, it would quickly spread to other countries.

“This is an event that would not be able to be controlled,” says a central banker.

The German government would attempt to carry on with the monetary union, with as many countries as possible. It would also be willing to pay good money to do that. Should Italy, Spain and Portugal become untenable partners anyway – for example, because pressure from the financial markets is just too great – the only thing that would remain of what we know now, would be a sort of  northern euro. That’s not exactly a plan, more of an attempt at damage control. The E.U. could conceivably continue to stumble along for a while, without France and Great Britain, but become a mere shadow of the former currency union, headed by big, lonely Germany.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once famously said there are “unknown unknowns” in politics. Mr. Rumsfeld explained these as events “we don’t know we don’t know.” That is, events that cannot be predicted, and therefore cannot be planned for because we didn’t even know they were coming. Elections are not among these occurrences. One can prepare for their outcomes. In fact, one must prepare, even if it is a difficult and unpalatable task.

 

This article first appeared in Die Zeit weekly and was written by a number of Die Zeit’s foreign and political correspondents, based in Germany, France and Belgium:  Georg BlumeMartin KlingstMatthias KrupaUlrich LadurnerMark Schieritz und Michael Thumann. To contact the authors: redaktion@zeit.de

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