When President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen faced off in a heated debate this week ahead of Sunday’s election, it wasn’t just millions of TV viewers at home in France watching closely.
Also paying attention were the 450 million citizens of the European Union and governments from Washington to Kyiv, for whom this election could have seismic implications.
Making her third bid for power, the far-right nationalist Le Pen has never been closer to becoming the first woman to occupy the Élysée Palace, the official residence of French presidents since 1848.
It’s an outcome that seemed unthinkable until recently and would send shock waves across the West, handing Russian President Vladimir Putin a major victory in his campaign to recast the balance of power in Europe even as his military struggles on the ground in Ukraine.
Macron, seeking his second term, is a former banker and liberal centrist who burst onto the global stage five years ago with a new political party. He swept to power with grand ambitions, sidelining the traditional powerhouses on the center-right and center-left as he sought to position Paris as a European leader in the Western alliance, but has seen his tenure beset by domestic criticism, the pandemic and now a major war on the continent.
He may be leading in the polls, but his technocratic, aloof style is far from universally popular. One woman told the president at a campaign event Thursday that to her, Sunday’s election amounted to choosing between “plague and cholera.”
Opinion polls since the pair advanced from the first round this month have shown Macron pulling ahead by around 10 percentage points, at 55 percent. But that’s far closer than when the two last contested the presidency in 2017.
A fierce nationalist and Eurosceptic, Le Pen aims to drastically shift France’s place in the European family of nations by ending its senior leadership in NATO, reducing payments and legal deference to the E.U., restricting non-French people’s access to social benefits and advocating a radical rapprochement with Putin.