WASHINGTON — American liberals are anxiously watching Sunday’s presidential election in France, where they fear a victory by the far-right Marine LePen would undermine the West’s newly emboldened defense of democracy from both external Russian militarism and internal ethnonationalism.
Macron, a centrist former investment banker, is no hero of progressives on either side of the Atlantic, but they say the alternative is far worse, so the choice is obvious.
“This is a genuine threat to progressives’ vision of a pluralistic, multiethnic democracy,” said Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “Everyone should be clear that a Le Pen victory would be a massive boost for the Trump movement here."
Le Pen, the anti-immigrant party leader who has long been friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, represents the far-right’s best chance in years of taking control of a major European power after finishing within 5 percentage points of President Emmanuel Macron in the first round of the election this month.
Polls show Macron, running for a second term, has expanded his lead and most expect he will prevail in Sunday's runoff. But the polls were off in the first round and analysts say supporters of a left-wing candidate who narrowly missed the runoff may stay home or even cast a protest vote for the anti-establishment Le Pen over the unpopular Macron.
“The most important thing to remember is that no French president has won re-election since 2002, so he’s sort of starting with the deck stacked against him,” said G. Elliott Morris, a polling analyst for the Economist.
While there are many differences between the two country’s politics and their leaders, Macron, like President Joe Biden, is facing rising prices due to inflation, disillusionment after the initial excitement of his victory, and accusations of being out of touch with the daily struggles of ordinary people.
Macron's and Biden’s approval ratings are nearly identical in polling averages, with the share who disapprove about 10 percentage points higher than those who approve.
Le Pen, like former President Donald Trump and his allies, has railed against “le wokisme,” a Francification of “wokeism,” and stoked resentment against Macron and his ilk of cosmopolitan elites for allegedly selling out French culture and workers, drawing particularly strong support from struggling post-industrial areas and rural territory outside major metro areas.
“The overarching global theme here seems to be a reorientation from the class-based politics of the 20th Century to the identity-based politics of the 21st Century,” Morris said.
Some on the American left say the deficit hawks in the Democratic Party should note how Le Pen has found success by championing right-wing cultural views — she’s called for prohibiting Muslim woman from wearing head scarves in public, for instance — while outflanking the centrist Macron on some economic issues.
Le Pen has attacked Macron from the left over his plans to cut social welfare programs to make the country more appealing to business by, among other things, raising the retirement age from 62 to 65.
“It’s not just unpopular, but highly salient,” said Ethan Winter, lead analyst with the progressive think tank Data for Progress, noting that Trump has flirted with a similar formula, such as when he broke with conservative orthodoxy to defend social safety net programs like Medicare during his 2016 campaign.
But in a moment when Europe has rallied like never before to confront Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, Le Pen’s ties to Putin have emerged as both a political vulnerability and potential threat to NATO and the united Western front against Moscow.
While Le Pen has moderated her message and tried to soften her image, dropping plans to withdraw from the European Union, she is still calling for reconciliation with Putin and her party is still paying back an almost 10 million euro loan (about $12 million) it received from a Russian bank.
“When you speak to Russia, you speak to your banker. That is the problem, Mrs. Le Pen,” Macron said during a televised debate Wednesday night.
Le Pen retorted that she was “a totally free woman” and that she backs some sanctions on Russia and France’s support for Ukraine.
But she said she opposes cutting off Russian oil and gas imports because it would hurt French people who are already suffering from higher energy prices that she blames on an ideological and punitive push to transition too quickly to a green economy.
The imprisoned Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny urged French citizens to vote for Macron, saying on Twitter on Wednesday that Le Pen is compromised by Moscow.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also offered support for Macron.
“While I do not think that I have the right to influence what happens in your country, I want to say I have a relationship with Emmanuel Macron and I would not want to lose that,” he told French TV station BFM on Wednesday. “If Le Pen understands that she has made a mistake, our relationship could change.”
Simon Rosenberg, the founder of the Washington-based New Democrat Network, who has advised the U.K.’s Labour Party and worked in European politics, said American liberals need to realize that populist-nationalist movements like Trump's and LePen’s have taken the place of traditional center-right parties in many Western countries.
“I don’t think people understand the extent to which the European center-right is in a moment of crisis. There is no center-right government in any of the major European countries right now,” he said.
It feels very different from Le Pen’s last campaign in 2017, which came on the heels of the unexpected victories of Trump and Brexit, when it looked like the far-right was unstoppable.
Even if not ascendant at the moment, right-wing parties and politicians from Trump to Le Pen to Hungary’s Viktor Orban share some things that make them appealing to Putin: mistrust of NATO, support for fossil fuels, and skepticism of the multicultural Western democratic values.
“Virtually all of these parties have ties to Putin,” Rosenberg said, adding that a weak Macron and Biden are good for Putin ahead of another potential Trump presidential run in 2024. “No question Putin and his allies are going to use high gas and inflation to weaken Western political resolve.”