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Forget Brexit, here comes Marine Le Pen

Mujtaba Rahman is the head of Eurasia Group’s Europe practice and the author of POLITICO’s Beyond the Bubble column. He tweets at @Mij_Europe.

One of the curiosities of the French presidential election, before the first round of voting last weekend, has been the failure of both the media and President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign to point out the extreme, and potentially destructive, nature of Marine Le Pen’s program on Europe. Thankfully, this is now beginning to change.

A Le Pen victory on April 24 would have disastrous implications for the European Union — and this should be made clear.

Thus far, Le Pen’s presidential campaign has been based on the successful ruse that she is now a moderate patriot, whose goal is to shift economic power and advantage away from the rich and the elite and toward ordinary people. But while her economic program is indeed interventionist and left wing, her other policies remain as extreme and nationalist as ever.

Though Le Pen now claims she does not want to leave the EU, almost all of her economic program, and much of her social and migration policy, depends on breaking EU laws. However, she does not openly recognize this fact, relying instead on the widespread ignorance of many French voters on how the EU works.

She is, in effect, saying she wants to remain aboard the EU bus — but drive it off a cliff. A close look at Le Pen’s program highlights its incompatibility with EU membership: By way of a constitutional amendment, Le Pen would seek to make it possible to discriminate against foreign residents, including EU residents, in terms of jobs, welfare and housing. She would withhold €5 billion per year in payments into the EU budget, give preference to French businesses on all national and local government contracts, and extra subsidies to French farmers. She also says she’d reimpose checks at France’s land borders with Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and Spain.

All these policies would break EU laws and threaten to destroy the single market. If implemented, they would undoubtedly bring legal action and financial retaliation from both Brussels and domestic courts, causing the greatest crisis in EU history. France, in the heart of Europe, could find itself isolated, or the leader of a small group of dissident nations.

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There is a chance that Le Pen’s ambitions could still be frustrated, as she seems unlikely to win a parliamentary majority in the National Assembly elections in June. But the French electorate has never denied a working majority to a recently elected president, which might therefore enable her to cobble together some form of majority for some of her proposals. There are also emergency powers she’d be able to make use of to override Parliament, and in any case, the Fifth Republic constitution would give her substantial direct powers over European, international and defense policy.

Le Pen has distanced herself from Russian President Vladimir Putin since he invaded Ukraine, but she still says that Moscow should be an ally, not an enemy, when the war is over. She also wants to stop arms shipments to Ukraine and soften Western sanctions on Russia, especially those which cause domestic pain in France. Her victory would make it difficult, if not impossible, to implement EU-wide import bans on Russian oil and gas.

At the same time, Le Pen believes that France should reduce its “dependency” on Germany and the United States. And when it comes to NATO, she says that she would pull France out of its integrated military structure, which it rejoined just 13 years ago, while remaining within the alliance — a move that jars with her wish to make Putin a French ally.

Le Pen seeks to overturn France’s tolerant, outward-looking, pro-European, post-war consensus. At best, this would lead to confusion and a five-year paralysis in Paris and Brussels. At worst, it could start a process that could tear apart the EU from within and remove a key nation — a nuclear power, a G7 member and a permanent member of the UN Security Council — from the Western alliance.

Le Pen’s campaign program amounts to a Frexit by stealth — or at the very least, mimicking Hungary’s policy of disruption and disobedience — and it’s time to realize it as such. For Budapest to systematically break EU law is a dangerous challenge to Brussels. But for France, a founding EU member and its second largest economy, to do so would make the union unworkable and raise the prospect of its collapse.

After weeks of extraordinary passivity from the Macron campaign and much of the media, Le Pen’s European and foreign policies will now be subjected to intense analysis in the coming 10 days, before the election’s second round run-off. They should be.

Much more than Brexit ever did, Le Pen’s policies present a great threat to the EU and to the liberal, democratic, Western status quo. That’s something that everybody — and French voters in particular — need to understand.

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