The Franco-German alliance that forms the bedrock of the European Union is under threat from growing French nationalism.
As France's Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve comes to Berlin Monday to meet with Angela Merkel, two leading contenders for the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron and Francois Fillon, have warned that their populist rival, Marine Le Pen, poses a serious threat to the future of the euro zone.
“We have to take the threat seriously because the parties of lies and nationalism are advancing everywhere in Europe,” Mr. Macron, a former socialist who’s running as an independent, told Handelsblatt.
Indeed, France’s cost of borrowing has risen precipitously in recent days as investors price the risk that Ms. Le Pen could win the French presidency amid campaign turmoil.
The presidential race has been upended as scandal engulfs conservative candidate Francois Fillon, who was once considered the hands-down favorite to win the election.
Mr. Fillon stands accused of using public money to pay family members for jobs they didn’t actually perform. A majority of French voters now want Mr. Fillon to drop out of the race.
Investors are concerned that Ms. Le Pen now has opening to win the race as Mr. Fillon’s campaign falters.
Ms. Le Pen has said she would withdraw France from the euro zone and hold a referendum on its E.U. membership. Mr. Fillon warned that Europeans shouldn’t take the euro for granted.
“The euro is a great success of European unity, it secures low interest rates for us, but it would be dangerous to view it as an unshakable achievement,” Mr. Fillon told Handelsblatt.
Recent polls show Mr. Macron, who previously served as France’s economics minster, facing off against Ms. Le Pen in the second-round vote and defeating her by double digits. The 39-year-old, who has never held elected office, said that while the threat from Ms. Le Pen was real, markets were overreacting.
“The markets didn’t see Brexit and Trump’s victory coming and now they want to be quicker than the next eruption,” Mr. Macron said.
France’s finance minister, Michel Sapin also spoke to Handelsblatt, warning that investors were betting on the wrong horse.
“I say it very clearly: All the people who are betting, whether out of conviction or speculation, that France will leave the euro because Marine Le Pen could win are going to lose a lot of money,” Mr. Sapin said.
The European Union would be seriously damaged if France, a cornerstone of both the European Union and the single currency, left the euro.
The whole idea of an integrated Europe is based on the cooperation of Germany's economic power and the political power of France.
Mr. Sapin urged "those who feel disconnected to get involved again," and said France needed an active education policy, investment and renewed social justice.
He said he did not believe the National Front would win power, as most French citizens do not share their views. “I am convinced that, for the majority of French as well as Germans, the retreat to a national identity and a closed economy is not their idea of progress,” he said. “In these uncertain and turbulent times, we must advocate even more strongly for the European ideals of openness, tolerance and cooperation.”
The best result Ms. Le Pen and her National Front have ever achieved in a poll were 7.6 million voters. Where will 10 million more votes come from?
His skepticism of a possible Le Pen victory is supported by opinion polls. Should a second round of voting occur, the polls predict a win for the socialist Emmanuel Macron or the conservative François Fillon. But since Mr. Fillon has been crippled by a financial scandal, worries are growing that Ms. Le Pen could be victorious. They are reinforced by the uncertainty in the Netherlands, where another European right-wing player could win the election in March with Geert Wilders.
Mr. Wilders’ right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) is critical of Islam and is calling for a ban on headscarves, the Koran and immigration from Islamic countries, as well as a “Holland first” approach. The PVV is currently leading in the polls in the Netherlands and the country’s March 15 election is seen as a possible early indicator of how far to the right Europe could swing this year. Other Dutch parties, however, have promised not to form a ruling coalition with Mr. Wilders.
“We see in Europe the danger of nationalism, not only in France with the National Front, but also in Germany with the AfD,” Mr. Sapin said. “The former French President François Mitterrand was right when he said, ‘Nationalism is war.’"
Western Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity under both NATO and the European Union after World War II. There have been a few changes: The protests in 1968, the fall of the Berlin Wall and some political swings between the right and left. But the bond among western European countries was firm, sealed by the reconciliation between Germany and France. Above it all, hovered the protection of the United States.
Suddenly these certainties, which post-war generations have come to rely upon, no longer apply. U.S. President Donald Trump considers NATO obsolete. And in France, two months before the presidential election, Marine Le Pen is characterizing Germany as her opponent and calling the European Union and its currency as "straitjacket and tyranny.” The euro is just a “Deutsche Mark in disguise,” she has said.
Ms. Le Pen is telling voters that France would quickly get rid of unemployment and its debt if it could get rid of the euro, the European Union and NATO, introduce a new franc and close its borders.
"Give us the Banque de France and the Finance Ministry, then France would be out of trouble in three weeks," said Ms. Le Pen’s economic consultant Bernard Monot. It’s a familiar tune. But rating agencies Moody's and Standard & Poor's see things differently, warning France will be broke if it leaves the euro.
Marine Le Pen has always had math against her. This applies not only to her fanciful currency plans, but also to her own chances in the election. For victory in a presidential election, a candidate needs around 18 million votes in the second round. The best result Ms. Le Pen and her National Front have ever achieved in a poll were 7.6 million voters. Where will 10 million more votes come from?
Mr. Sapin is convinced they will not materialize. “The National Front is not a populist party but a party outside the democratic consensus, outside the values that France defends. That is why Marine Le Pen will never be elected in France,” he said. “I know that I will immediately be told that we were wrong in the case of Donald Trump. But that is not the same! He was the Republican candidate. Le Pen, on the other hand, is outside of the democratic parties.”
The pollsters are certain that they are reading the statistics correctly and say that a comparison between the French election with the surprise wins by Donald Trump or Brexit are unfounded. Fear of admitting to be an extreme right-winger has disappeared, they say, and potential National Front voters are no longer hiding, which means there won’t be any surprises on election day.
That sounds convincing. But is it true? France is in political turmoil because the political class is largely discredited. In the suburbs cars are burning once again. Policemen beat a black teenager on the streets and allegedly sodomized him with a police baton. Gangs of thugs have been taking advantage of the resulting outrage and causing chaos. On Saturday, a teenager managed to rescue a 6-year-old girl just in time from a car lit on fire by rioters.
Ms. Le Pen is leveraging the upheaval, just as she has with the scandal surrounding François Fillon, who is under investigation for paying his family members some €900,000 ($956,385) in public money. On the other hand, the country seems almost sedated when it comes to the nationalist danger that Ms. Le Pen embodies. The barrier between the moderate right and National Front has become permeable. Mr. Fillon warned that a large number of his own supporters could migrate to the Ms. Le Pen’s party.
Last Thursday, Ms. Le Pen’s appearance on television drew a record audience of 3.5 million French viewers. Ms. Le Pen was attractively dressed, with a new hairstyle and always smiling as she gave her pitch for a nationalist France including an exit from the euro and a special tax of 10 percent to be levied against foreign employees.
She was adamant that even foreign E.U. citizens would not be allowed to benefit from the French health insurance system for two years. When asked by the interviewer if she really meant that a German worker in France would not be entitled to health insurance, Ms. Le Pen answered: "She can go back to Germany."
Ms. Le Pen certainly knows how to set a spiral of discrimination in motion. First set limits on economic freedom, then on political freedoms, always under the pretext that "we have to take care of the French."
After the show, 41 percent of viewers said Ms. Le Pen had convinced them she was right. Her approval ratings have never been so high.
But Mr. Macron still said he believed "Marine Le Pen will not win this election; France will not leave the euro because the French don’t want that."
Mr. Fillon also expects Ms. Le Pen to be defeated, with one caveat. "Marine Le Pen will only be stopped if we finally bring the changes that a majority of the French are expecting," he said.
At the moment, 70 percent of the French are for the common currency. But Ms.Le Pen's constant attacks against Germany have had an impact because she’s connected immigration and impoverishment. She argued that "Germany is exporting its unemployment," with its trade surplus and that refugees are only accepted into Germany "because the declining country needs new labor slaves,” Europe is just a vehicle for Germany's lust for power and German dumping has destroyed French industry. As hyperbolic as these attacks might be, they hit a sore spot for many French voters.
Both Ms. Le Pen and the far-left champion Jean-Luc Mélenchon use anti-German rhetoric. Even among moderate conservatives, there are people who want other alliances. The conservative politician Gérard Longuet suggested France returns “to the good French tradition of seeking an alliance with Russia."
It's a cold wind blowing from the west. The current government, however, is still fighting to consolidate France’s bond with Germany. Whether this bond endures remains to be seen.
Thomas Hanke is Handelsblatt’s Paris correspondent. To contact the author: [email protected].