BRUSSELS – As the two names on the French presidential election's second-round ballot make clear, a political paradigm shift is underway in Europe. Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen represent alternative worldviews that depart from, and transcend, the traditional left-right divide.
Recent elections elsewhere in Europe have also pitted progressive, free-market, pro-European parties against nationalistic populist movements. But in a country as important to Europe's future as France, the stakes could not be higher. Those who wish to tear apart the European Union are well aware of this. Russian hackers have launched numerous cyberattacks against the website of Macron's En marche ! movement, and the Kremlin is publicly supporting Le Pen.
Many French voters still seem unaware of the geopolitical dynamics at work in their country's election. And yet a grave responsibility rests upon their shoulders. Indeed, the fate of the EU – and the West – is in their hands.
France has left its mark on almost all of its neighbors, starting with my own country, Belgium, where nearly half of the population speaks French. Historically, France was one of the world's great conquering powers, before it became a founding member of the EU. As different as these legacies of imperialism and multilateralism appear, both have embodied France's commitment to globalization. Ironically, that commitment is now being betrayed by those who would close off France from Europe and the world in the name of "patriotism."
Although current opinion polls suggest that Macron will win handily, he has not yet secured his place in the Élysée Palace. Relativism and anti-establishment sentiment are trending in French public opinion, and electoral forecasts predict a surge in abstention rates among potential Macron voters. Le Pen's supporters, on the other hand, will almost certainly flock to the polls to vote for her, demonstrating the disciplined fanaticism for which the National Front has long been known.
The pollsters, despite being maligned during the campaign, have been right so far, so we need to pay attention to how surveys of voter intentions can affect electoral outcomes. In other recent elections in Europe, populist candidates such as Norbert Hofer in Austria and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands ultimately lost because their rising popularity in polls prompted a last-minute surge in electoral activism to defeat them.
In the second round of the French election, however, Macron is the one currently enjoying a comfortable lead. But his margin over Le Pen could falter. Between now and May 7, National Front propaganda will belittle him constantly; Russian cyber-trolls will step up their attacks; and his political opponents will deride him for his brief stint as an investment banker and cast doubts on his stated commitment to fight for French workers.
Indeed, if you listen to the campaign messages from the National Front and its allies (foreign and domestic), you would think that Macron is responsible for every rain cloud and flat tire in France and Europe. All of the more mainstream candidates who lost in the first round must actively resist a Le Pen victory, which means actively working to secure Macron's victory in the runoff – a victory for the French Republic over those who hold it in contempt.
Free-market liberalism has a bad reputation in France. But, if anything, Macron should be commended for campaigning as its champion, and for being honest about the reforms France needs. Forty years ago, France's GDP was about 9% larger than the United Kingdom's; today, it is smaller. Those who have distanced themselves as much from Macron as from Le Pen in the name of French workers clearly have their priorities mixed up.
If Macron wins on May 7, everyone who voted for him will still be free to criticize and oppose his every move. And they can rest assured that he poses no threat to the rule of law or the fundamental institutions of democracy. In fact, a key feature in his legislative program is a pronounced effort to clean up public life.
The same could not be said of a President Le Pen. Even if those who are unwilling to support Macron can look past Le Pen's bigoted and atavistic political program, they cannot guarantee that the core institutions of French democracy would survive her time in office. In other words, unless Macron's first-round opponents back him, they cannot guarantee their own future.
Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2017