Campaigning in Burgundy the day after reaching the second round of France’s presidential elections, Marine Le Pen could not have seemed clearer: “I do not want to leave the EU,” she said. “That is not my objective.”
Much of what the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) leader does want to do, however – on the economy, social policy and immigration – implies breaking the EU’s rules, and her possible arrival in the Élysée Palace next weekend could prove calamitous for the 27-member bloc.
Le Pen may have dropped previous pledges to take France – a founder member of the EU, its second-biggest economy and half of the vital Franco-German engine that has powered it since its creation – out of the euro single currency and the bloc.
In the 2017 election, fears of the economic consequences of that policy, above all among older voters worried about their savings, are widely seen as having contributed to her heavy second-round defeat against the pro-European Emmanuel Macron.
This time, the EU does not even feature by name among the dozen or so key themes of Le Pen’s electoral programme. Many of her concrete policy proposals, however, blatantly contradict the obligations of EU membership.
Opponents and commentators have called the strategy “Frexit in all but name”: an approach that, while it may no longer aim to remove France from the bloc, seeks to fundamentally refashion it, and that could lead to a paralyzing standoff with Brussels.
“Le Pen’s EU policy is: ‘We’re going to stay in the bus but drive it off a cliff,’” said Mujtaba Rahman, the Europe director of Eurasia Group consultancy. It would “try to destroy the EU from the inside” and was “a much greater threat to the EU status quo than Brexit”, he said.
Pascal Lamy, who was chief of staff to the former European Commission president Jacques Delorssaid a Le Pen victory would be a major shock on a bigger scale “than Trump was for the United States, or Brexit for the UK”.
Her “sovereigntist, protectionist, nationalist” agenda would “totally contradict the French commitment to European integration” and includes “proposals which are in total breach of the treaties to which France has subscribed,” he said.
Key to Le Pen’s plans is an early referendum on a proposed law on “citizenship, identity and immigration” that would modify the constitution to allow a “national priority” for French citizens in employment, social security benefits and public housing – a measure incompatible with EU values and free movement rules.
The same referendum would establish “the primacy of national law over European law” to allow France “not only to control immigration but, in every other area, reconcile its European engagement with the preservation of its national sovereignty and the defense of its interests”, the her RN party says.
The aim would be to enable France to benefit from a “Europe à la carte”, picking and choosing from the bits of EU legislation it likes and dislikes – a non-starter for the bloc that was forcefully ruled out by the 27 during Brexit negotiations with the UK.
“It’s absurd,” said Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a centrist MP and president of the French parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “As soon as you affirm the primacy of national law, you have no European law. Marine Le Pen has rejected an official exit, but her program is not compatible with continued French membership of the EU. ”
Le Pen also aims to re-establish border controls on imports and people, violating EU and Schengen rules, and unilaterally cut France’s contribution to the EU budget – when the bloc’s multi-annual financial framework for 2021 to 2027 is already fixed. Further plans to cut taxes on essential goods and fuel would breach EU free market rules.
Big questions may remain about how much of this program could be implemented, domestically and in an EU context. Le Pen’s ambitions of her would be thwarted if she failed to win a parliamentary majority in elections in June, and EU legal experts have pointed out that even so much as holding a referendum on the primacy of national law would be in breach of European treaties.
French lawyers also say the country’s highest court, the constitutional council, would throw out Le Pen’s plan for a referendum by presidential decree – avoiding the need for parliamentary approval – precisely because any referendum intended to modify the constitution must have the backing of MPs and senators .
The EU as it exists today, Le Pen said earlier this yearwas “neglectful of peoples, and domineering of nations”, an “intrusive and authoritarian” bloc locked into “a globalist, open-border ideology” that was “destroying our identity”.
Her vision, she said, was of an “alliance of nations… respectful of peoples, histories and national sovereignties”, whose members could “favour their own businesses for public contracts” and “re-establish permanent checks” on their borders.
But even if she failed to declare the primacy of French law and establish a national preference, the small print in Le Pen’s program seems certain to lead France inexorably down the road towards a conflictual relationship with the EU – with political chaos the consequence given France’s indispensable role within the block.
“She could totally put [the EU] into gridlock or paralyze it,” said Georg Riekeles, a former European Commission official, who forecast “a dramatic weakening” of the EU’s ability to deal with crises, from security to the climate.
Le Pen has vowed to pull France out of Nato’s integrated command structure, removing troops and weapons from common management. She also wants to dismantle French windfarms, to strike against France’s EU renewable energy targets. “Any topic will just be more complicated,” Riekeles said.
EU insiders worry that a France led by Le Pen would also provide a major boost to national-conservative governments in countries such as Poland and Hungary, potentially allying with capitals that have long challenged the supremacy of EU law and are locked in battle with Brussels.
“It would stop every attempt to change things in Poland and Hungary,” said the French MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, who works on the rule of law. While the Green MEP believes the EU’s institutions and single market would continue under a Le Pen presidency, she thinks it “would be the end of a rule of law, values-based European Union”.
For the EU, a President Le Pen could mean a five-year “empty chair” crisis, Lamy suggested, referring to the events of 1965 when the then French president, Charles de Gaulle, boycotted the European institutions in a row over the budget.
“For certain, it would be a big problem, short term, during the next five years,” he said. “I have a hard time believing that if she was elected with the program that she has, she would be re-elected.”