EU awaits French election outcome with trepidation

European Union (EU) officials returned to work on Tuesday after basking in a balmy bank holiday. But, just over the border, the EU’s future was being fought over in the French presidential election.

Far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, insisted she had no secret “Frexit” agenda.

But opponents claimed her policies would put France’s place in the EU at risk.

Supporters argued that Brussels had failed to learn the lessons from Brexit.

Voters will choose on Sunday between Ms Le Pen and incumbent Emmanuel Macron, who leads centrist movement, La République En Marche (Republic on the move).

Le Pen, the head of Rassemblement National (National Rally), has notably toned down her approach to the EU at this election.

In 2017, her manifesto promised a referendum on EU membership, following six months of talks to try to radically reform the bloc.

But read through this year’s document, “22 measures for France“, and the EU doesn’t even get a direct mention.

Gone, too, was talk of pulling France out of the single currency, the euro.

French government minister and En Marche member, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, believed her softer stance was down to her desire to “conquer the presidency”.

“But she’s questioning some fundamentals of the EU,” he said.

What’s undisputed was that a Le Pen win would send shockwaves through Brussels.

Unlike the UK, France was a founding member of what eventually became the European Union and was now its second largest financial backer.

Marine Le Pen wants to slash France’s contributions to the EU, tighten border controls and hold a referendum on stopping “uncontrolled” immigration.

That would include prioritising French people’s access to welfare, social housing and jobs.

Such policies appeared to be in direct contradiction with free movement and the primacy of EU law.

It’s the quest for an “à la carte” membership, says Jonathan Eyal, Associate Director at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank.

Her plans could lead, he said, to EU “paralysis” if other member states, like Poland and Hungary, join forces with France in trying to curb the powers of the European Commission.

It’s an idea that would look more like “a gaggle of nation’s states rather than a unified concept”. -BBC

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