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The French election, round two

Campaign posters of Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron won the first round of the presidential election last Sunday, but he's still in trouble. He knew he would be. Here's what he said last Saturday.

"Don't believe the pundits and the pollsters who tell you that it's impossible [that the far right will win in the second round of the election]. Look at Brexit and so many elections, all that seemed improbable and yet came to pass. Nothing is impossible."

In fact, it's not even unlikely. Strategies have consequences, as Mr Macron is now learning. The strategy that made Mr Macron president last time (2017) has succeeded so well that it may cost him the election in the second round this time on April 24.

Mr Macron's strategy has always been to exaggerate the difference between the centre and the rest. If the left was too far left and the right was too far right, then the politician representing the centre (him) was the only rational choice.

It worked for him in 2017, when he waltzed into the presidency with a 66% majority of the vote despite the fact that he had never held elective office before. Fast forward five years, however, and the fantasy has become the fact.

The traditional moderate left-wing party, the Socialists, has been devoured by Jean-Luc Melenchon's extreme left La France Insoumise (Rebel France), which advocates withdrawal from Nato and also, in effect, from the European Union.

The Socialists only got 4.8% in the first round of voting on Sunday, which means they don't even get their election expenses reimbursed. The party may actually declare bankruptcy and disappear.

The traditional centre-right party, the Republicans, is suffering exactly the same fate. It too has fallen short of the 5% threshold and may go broke. Its place as standard-holder of the right has been taken by Marine Le Pen's National Rally, which remains ultra-nationalist, racist and anti-immigrant despite a cosmetic make-over that downplays its uglier policies.

Ms Le Pen also benefited from the fact that an even harder-right candidate, xenophobic television pundit Éric Zemmour, made her look moderate, if only by comparison. She will inherit all his votes in the second round of voting, naturally, but Mr Macron's problem is that she may also inherit some of Mr Melenchon's hard-left supporters on April 24.

That sounds crazy, but it's Mr Macron's own fault. By occupying so much of the centre-ground and driving the moderate parties of the centre-left and centre-right to extinction, he left all those who wanted something more than his pragmatic, unexciting centrism no options except the extremes. And the two extremes have some things in common.

They have a shared hostility to the European Union, for example, and most left-wing voters can remember that even though Ms Le Pen has been downplaying it recently. They both have a strong populist tone: Ms Le Pen may be a woman of the right, but she's promising that people under 30 won't have to pay income tax, and everybody can retire on full pension at 60.

Fully half of France's voting population has just voted for extremist parties, and according to the polls Ms Le Pen is heading into the run-off still holding most of those votes. The latest numbers say Mr Macron 51%, Ms Le Pen 49%, which is effectively neck-and-neck.

This does not bode well for Mr Macron, especially because it has always been hard for French presidents to win a second term. And while the other losing parties told their supporters to back Mr Macron in the second round, Mr Melenchon just told his supporters "You must not give a single vote to Marine Le Pen." [But you could abstain, if you like.]

Despite Covid, France is actually in good shape after five years of Mr Macron. Investment is up, inflation is low, jobs are plentiful, the country is even opening more factories than it closes. But the French do not feel good about their lot, and Ms Le Pen could actually win. If she does, a great deal will change, and not just in France.

The new-found unity of "The West" in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine will vanish: Ms Le Pen's campaign pamphlets feature a picture of her with Vladimir Putin, another hard-right icon.

She has stopped talking aloud about "Frexit", but it's still there in the background somewhere, as is the anti-immigrant racism her party has always peddled.

She is much more than Donald Trump in a skirt. She is far more intelligent than he is, and not at all corrupt. She is racist and Islamophobic, but much better at dog-whistling her true convictions.

If the League of Authoritarian Leaders ever needs an honorary president, she would be the best candidate for the job. Despite all this, I think Mr Macron will win, because the French aren't fools. But it may be a near-run thing.

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