What would happen if the far-right leader were given an opportunity to carry out her proposals?
Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett for POLITICO
The date is May 25, 2022. President Marine Le Pen has been president of France for less than a month. Europe’s leaders — her peers now — have barely recovered from the shock of the election when she arrives in Brussels for her first trip abroad.
Diplomats and journalists look on in slack disbelief as the National Rally leader exits, beaming, from her presidential Peugeot 607 in front of the French permanent representation. A guard announces her as “Madame la présidente de la République!” and Le Pen, a lifelong outsider who has broken through on her third bid for power, smiles even wider.
There’s a chill in the air as the far-right leader walks up to the lectern in the embassy’s main reception room. Much of what she’s going to say is well-known from her presidential program, but a lot remains unknown. What will she do first? Will she sound combative or conciliatory? The National Rally chief starts off friendly enough, joking that “some of you will be surprised that I did not ride in on a horse like Joan of Arc and claim this land for France.“
But the mood soon turns darker as Le Pen gets to the meat of her speech and methodically lays out her plans to dismantle the EU from within.
This article is a work of fiction — but the actions and initiatives Le Pen is portrayed as pursuing are based on language and proposals that she has been promoting, in one form or another, since she took over leadership of the National Front party from her father in 2010.
To imagine one this scenario would play out — and how Europe might react — POLITICO spoke to a range of EU diplomats, legal experts and Le Pen’s aides, as well as politicians from other EU countries, namely Germany. (Throughout this article, the quotes in plain text are real; those in italics are imagined.)
While the fine print of their assessment varies, the EU crowd largely falls in line with the view of German Green MP Anton Hofreiter, chair of the Bundestag’s European Affairs committee, who described the consequences of a Le Pen victory as being “fatal” for Europe. It would “massively endanger the security of all people in Europe, and of course it would be a huge problem for economic cooperation in the EU, for issues such as future technologies, climate protection or EU foreign policy,” he said.
The elder Le Pen was never particularly concerned with the EU, but his daughter is obsessed with it. Along with her crusade against “Islamic fundamentalism,” hatred of “Brussels” and the “dictates of EU bureaucrats” are constant themes for her, dating back to her first presidential bid in 2012. At the heart of it is the belief that France’s sovereignty cannot coexist with EU authority; it must supplant and overtake it.
In Brussels, President Le Pen announces she will effectively abolish the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, by transforming it into a Secretariat to rubber-stamp legislation agreed by the Council of EU heads of state. She will immediately reduce France’s contribution to the EU budget by €5 billion per year. She will introduce the notion of a national priority favoring French nationals over foreigners for access to public goods and services into the Constitution. She will ignore the Schengen Treaty that allows for free circulation of goods and people, in theory, around the bloc and reinstate border controls. And she will ask the French people via a referendum if they want EU law to remain superior to French law, or reclaim their legal sovereignty.
She reserves her sharpest aside for judges sitting on the bloc’s highest court: “And to you, judges who sit in Luxembourg and imagine that you are the masters of Europe, I say this: You will not like the program of President Le Pen, but you will end up bending to the will of the people.“
Whether Le Pen can actually push through her proposals (legal experts will rush to tell you she can’t) is largely beside the point. The EU has survived with Euroskeptic governments before — think Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Italy’s 5Star Movement, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, not to mention pre-Brexit Britain — but it’s never had to contend with a full-frontal assault by a country with the size and heft of France.
The room erupts as Le Pen supporters crowded in the front row start a chorus of “Marine, présidente” — forgetting in their excitement that she is already president. But the diplomats and journalists gathered to witness this moment are speechless. One old Brussels hand quips to a diplomat: “Some peace offering … Seems more like the General MacArthur reading out the terms of surrender on the USS Missouri …“
“It’s over,” replies a German diplomat. “Now we will have to save what can be saved.”
* * *
The date is June 21, 2022. Le Pen has been in power for nearly two months. She has reaped the praise and applause of Russia’s Vladimir Putin (via his spokesman), Hungary’s Orbán, Poland’s Andrzej Duda, Slovenia’s Janez Janša and the U.S.’s Donald Trump, all of whom hail her rise as a “victory for democracy,” or some variation on that theme.
But her presidency has already hit rough waters. No sooner was she sworn in than she was hip-deep in problems, starting with a financial attack on French debt and the eurozone.
According to a conservative estimate by Goldman Sachs, this would take the form of an immediate 2-percent drop in the euro-dollar exchange rate and a rise in the interest rates that investors demand to hold French government bonds. This would widen the “spread” — the difference in the cost of borrowing — between French and German debt, pushing the EU toward a reprise of the sovereign debt crisis of the mid-2010s.
A high-ranking EU diplomat who was on the front lines the last time around offered this grim prognosis in the event of a Le Pen victory: “Interest rates would rise and the entire [euro] system would be attacked … the euro is a political construction, so as soon as its political basis is undermined, the euro is weakened.”
What’s more, Le Pen is facing a political crisis at home. She defeated Emmanuel Macron thanks largely to mass abstention by left-wing voters. But her victory on April 24 mobilized her opponents, and so she failed to secure a majority in parliament during the legislative elections that took place shortly after the presidential vote in France. Now she’s stuck in an uncomfortable “cohabitation” with Macron’s centrists, which means she’ll struggle to pass legislation.
The misery at home prompts Le Pen to seek comfort abroad — namely in Ukraine. The conflict there grinds on, with Russian forces still trying to pummel Ukraine into submission or annihilation, and the Ukrainian fighters, though vastly outnumbered, still holding on thanks to a continued influx of weapons and supplies from NATO.
Europe has yet to pull the trigger on a full ban on Russian energy, but pressure is rising: A fresh atrocity discovered in an eastern Ukrainian town recently abandoned by Russian troops prompts even German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has steadfastly resisted all calls to stop buying Russian gas, to allow that “Germany is ready to begin considering this eventuality as a possible option.”
In sweeps Le Pen, who’s already made her views on Ukraine explicit during the campaign. Having said she is “very cautious” on the idea of sending weapons to Ukraine because “that would make us co-belligerents,” and that an energy embargo would be “catastrophic” for French consumers, she uses a live interview on TF1 to announce the suspension of all but protective gear deliveries to Ukraine, and says that a gas embargo is “not an option for France,” adding: “I don’t see why we need to add misery in French lives to the misery of Ukrainians.”
The leaders of Hungary, Germany, Austria and a few other gas-dependent countries breathe a sigh of relief. Scholz decries Le Pen’s spirit of Alleingänge (going it alone) but adds that the French move “gives us pause,” while Orbàn says France has acted “to defend Europeans.”
Le Pen sees the moment and runs with it. She tells interviewers from a consortium of EU newspapers that her vision of an “alliance of European nations” is emerging on the Ukraine question — though it’s not clear who, besides Orbàn and possibly Cyprus, is signing on. Le Pen announces that she will be visiting Putin in Moscow the following week to deliver a 10-point “proposal for peace” largely focused on Ukraine abandoning chunks of its territory to Russia.
A photograph of the smiling French leader shaking hands with Putin at the Kremlin (no long-table treatment for her) marks the moment. White House press secretary Jen Psaki tells the daily press briefing that “the White House does not condone individual diplomatic initiatives by NATO countries located in Europe that might undermine the common posture of the alliance” and that the U.S. was not informed in advance of Le Pen’s trip. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen issues a Twitter statement in three languages calling for “a return to unity” — without specifying for whom. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose government has already toyed with banning Le Pen, has had enough. He tweets: “Mrs Le Pen-Putin is no longer welcome on the territory of Ukraine.”
For Le Pen, who’s having a hard time at home, this is a high point. A week before her election, she told a French TV channel that her hope in regard to Russia was that the country could form an alliance with NATO as soon as the war with Ukraine is over. While that prospect remains comical, at best, Le Pen is winning points with Putin, who hails Le Pen’s “diplomatic vision, so superior to her predecessor” and teases “enhanced cooperation and trade with friendly countries such as France” in one of his televised tirades.
Asked about the U.S. reaction on her return from Moscow, Le Pen can hardly contain her pleasure: “Ah well, there you have it,” she says. “For some countries the idea that we exercise our sovereignty is unbearable. Tant pis pour eux!“
* * *
Ukraine has been good for Le Pen, but she knows there is only so much to gain politically at home from freaking out Washington and pandering to Putin. Her approval rate is slipping fast, to 38 percent, and she needs to do something fast to regain the upper hand.
That something turns out to be overturning the table in Brussels. As promised in her campaign, Le Pen uses her first meeting with other EU leaders in July to slam down a demand: France wants to reduce its contribution to the EU not by €5 billion as announced, but €10 billion.
Howls of rage ensue from other EU leaders, who pronounce the request “illegal.”
But Le Pen has studied her history on this score, namely the example of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her 1984 vow to “get our money back” from Brussels. The fact that Thatcher only got about two-thirds of what she asked for is irrelevant; the point is that she put herself center stage during EU meetings for a full five years until a deal was made.
Here, German officials, asked about Le Pen’s budgetary demands, were categorical. “We can’t simply cancel what has been agreed,” said Social Democratic Markus Töns, deputy chair of the Bundestag’s European Affairs committee. “After all, we are contractual partners. Does she want to lead France out of the European Union? That would be extremely damaging to the French economy,” he said, remarking that France was also a main beneficiary of EU agricultural budget payments that may be at risk in such a scenario.
Green MP Anton Hofreiter, chair of the Bundestag’s European Affairs committee, said it like this: “Legally, that is not possible at all.”
Neither ventured to discuss what the EU would do to stop Le Pen on this score, but a senior EU diplomat was much more fatalistic about the EU’s prospects of reining in a rogue member country with the diplomatic and economic firepower of France. “We could mount a legal challenge, with penalties and fines against France, but there will be a reappraisal well before we get to that point,” said the diplomat.
And so, Le Pen succeeds in kickstarting a cycle of demands, outrage and counter-demands from EU partners that will last for as long as she wants it to. Her aides are confident that no serious consequences legal or otherwise will befall France because, as National Rally MEP Hervé Juvin puts it, “The Commission will not have the same attitude with France [as with Poland]. They change their tune according to who they are dealing with. The Germans said their constitution is supreme over European law on financial matters. The Commission didn’t say anything at all.”
Another senior EU official deadpanned: “Le Pen would seriously impede the functioning of the EU.”
Jean-Philippe Tanguy, Le Pen’s deputy campaign director, adds that when it comes to Europe, just about everything will be up for negotiation for a President Le Pen. “We consider that there are margins within the EU to defend our interests more forcefully … Things can be loosened.”
Le Pen turns meetings of the European Council into theater, railing against Brussels’ ultra-liberal ethos and vowing to bring “every centime” back to the French worker. At the same time, in the midst of a fresh influx of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, she ups the ante by setting up semi-permanent immigration controls at France’s borders with Spain and Italy, telling the world that Paris is “doing nothing that Sweden or Denmark have not already done, and is purely a matter of common sense.“
Here again, the pushback from other EU states is minimal. “The thinking on Schengen has matured” following the pandemic, sighed the senior EU diplomat, referring to the Schengen Treaty’s virtual suspension during the outbreak of COVID. “But it’s outdated thinking as what we need is to protect our external frontiers.”
And yet, even this “victory” and the spectacle that goes with it eventually prove boring to the average Le Pen supporter, who by now is starting to wonder when her promises of greater buying power are going to come true. Despite her bullying of EU institutions and leaders, Le Pen is hopelessly disarmed against the European Central Bank, whose chief, former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, hammers home the message that “monetary policy is not a credible answer to political instability manufactured from thin air.”
Le Pen needs more. She needs a political explosion big enough that it will distract voters at home from the rising unemployment, galloping inflation and the lack of all but the most rote legislative items creeping their way through parliament. And so she announces, during a prime-time interview, that France is to hold, within the month, a referendum on the supremacy of EU law, permanent withdrawal from the Schengen Treaty and a move toward “a Europe of nations.” This referendum, she insists, is only a first step toward a “refounding of Europe” that will “necessarily pass by a new treaty to put the unelected European Commission back in its proper place.”
Now she has Europe’s attention. While Poland and Hungary have already advanced far along the path of judicial defiance, both countries are dependent enough on EU funding that threats of removing it are enough to quell outrage and maintain a fragile, if unsatisfactory, status quo on rule of law in the EU. But France is a different case — a founding member, the bloc’s No. 2 economy. How do you threaten that?
According to the senior EU diplomat: “It would be a new status quo, and a resolution would have to be political in nature.” In other words, forget about fines or penalties when it comes to France.
The months leading up to the referendum pass in anguish, a sort of phony war in which diplomats and Brussels bureaucrats busy themselves with tasks, knowing that none of it means much anymore. Everyone understands that, if the French vote “yes” to the referendum, it will be the end of the EU as we know it. The credibility of the Court of Justice of the European Union will be badly damaged, encouraging other EU leaders to follow in France’s footsteps. More importantly, the changes will be incompatible with standing EU treaties, forcing leaders to get to work forging a new one which, for the first time, would not call for an “ever-closer union” but “an alliance of European nations” in which the Commission plays a negligible role, and all the power is in the hands of state leaders.
Before it’s ever tabled, newspapers dub this looming treaty the “anti-treaty,” or “EU-xit,” shorthand for the EU exiting from itself via treaty. Furthermore, given they are convinced there will not be majorities to support the move in most countries — the obvious conclusion is that France will have to leave, or remain as a massive irritant, gumming up the bloc’s functioning forevermore.
In the weeks leading up to the referendum, Le Pen tours France, holding rallies at which she proclaims that “our hour of glory has arrived” invoking every historical reference available — from Joan of Arc to the liberation of Paris by the Free French Forces — to rally the country’s patriotic spirit. She casts the vote as a choice between “vassalization” and “servitude” and “freedom for our nation.”
The clock ticks down.
Le Pen has been in power for seven months when the referendum is finally held, on a rainy Sunday in October.
She is sitting at the grand gilded table in the Elysée presidential palace when the results flash on her TV screen.
The French have spoken, and here is what they said: “Non.”
The defeat marks the end of the beginning for Le Pen. Her Europe strategy is in tatters — the French have decided that, after all, they are fairly comfortable with the current setup. Le Pen resorts to a series of furious tweets denouncing “agents of the deep state” acting against the French people. But the EU will never be the same.