Now we know.
Now we know about election upsets, about wrong predictions and unreliable polls, about blind assumption by many of us in the media that voters tend to think as we do.
We know that a majority of British voters have decided that their country should leave the European Union, we know that Donald J. Trump has been elected president of the United States, we know that Geert Wilders, the populist candidate who likes to call himself “the Dutch Trump,” will most likely emerge as the winner of the Dutch parliamentary election next week. We know of the nationalist Polish government’s disregard for the rule of law.
So now we also know that the possibility of Marine Le Pen being elected president of the Republic of France on May 7 is no longer impossible.
True, all rational calculations tend to prove otherwise: Doesn’t the French electoral system wisely leave voters two weeks to cool their heads between the first and second rounds? Don’t we have a tradition of rallying behind the “democratic” candidate in the end, as we did in 2002 when Jacques Chirac faced Ms. Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, in the second round? Isn’t the glass ceiling of 50 percent of the votes unbreakable for an extremist candidate?
But rational calculations do not fool anybody anymore. These are not rational times. As weeks and months go by, Ms. Le Pen’s verdict on Mr. Trump’s victory keeps haunting some of us: “What seemed impossible,” she said on Nov. 9, “is now possible.”
We are now bracing ourselves for the possible impossible. “The threat is real,” President François Hollande acknowledged publicly for the first time last weekend, when I asked in an interview whether a Le Pen victory would kill the European project. “But France will not give in.”
Will the dam hold? This is a French campaign like no other. All the political patterns established since 1958, when the present Constitution was adopted, have come apart. The National Front has been a fixture of national politics for 40 years, but never before has its presidential candidate been a consistent front-runner. Today, none of Ms. Le Pen’s opponents doubt that she will get to the second round; in fact, they are not even fighting her. They are fighting among themselves to win second place on April 23, to have a chance to beat her in the runoff.
Never before has a sitting French president decided not to run for a second term, as Mr. Hollande did in December, acknowledging his historically low popularity. Never before have all the established figures of French political life been thrown out so brutally in primary elections as in the ones that sent Nicolas Sarkozy into retirement and crushed Manuel Valls’s longstanding ambitions. A new word has been created for this unforgiving trend: “le dégagisme” (“dégagez” means “get out of here”). Having taken stock of the thirst of the voters for renewal, an astonishing number of legislators — roughly a quarter of the present National Assembly — will not run for re-election to the Parliament in June.
While Ms. Le Pen confidently blazes ahead, staying on script and making progress among women, farmers and disillusioned middle-class voters, the mainstream party on the right offers the most disconcerting spectacle that any election has witnessed. Faced with charges that he gave his wife and children fake jobs to the tune of nearly a million dollars on Parliament’s payroll François Fillon, a conservative former prime minister who is now the Republican candidate, has stopped campaigning. All his energy is spent fighting those allegations and vowing again and again to fight on. Back-room negotiations involving party barons have failed to produce an alternative candidate, nor to persuade Mr. Fillon to quit. Senior aides and allied politicians have deserted him. Increasingly desperate, he has taken on the judges investigating his case, accusing them and the press of carrying out “a political assassination” and trying to “kill the presidential election.” France, he claims, is in a state of “quasi civil war.”
So Marine Le Pen can stay put: Mr. Fillon does the job for her. She has judicial worries of her own over fake jobs for National Front aides at the European Parliament, but who cares when so much attention is focused on her rival?
The party of the traditional right used to be Mr. Sarkozy’s well-oiled, ruthless political machine. It now looks like a ruin in a war zone. As Mr. Trump would put it: This is a mess. He would love it.
As for the left, reflecting the crisis of social democratic parties in Europe, it is so divided and weak that it may not reach the second round. The environmentalists have disappeared as a political force. If polls are to be believed, the candidate most likely to face Ms. Le Pen in the second round is Emmanuel Macron, 39, who represents no political party and has never held elective office. This charismatic former economic minister and onetime Rothschild investment banker surfs on a neither-left-nor-right “progressive” wave that is attracting pro-European Union, pro-globalization voters disenchanted with the mainstream parties but firmly opposed to the rise of populism and nationalism. His reformist, adamantly pro-Europe, “radically transformative” agenda, as he describes it, emphasizes individual responsibility while helping workers adjust to a globalized economy. In this chaotic 2017 French political landscape, a nationalist-internationalist divide seems to be overtaking the traditional contest between left and right.
This is the great political battle for the heart and soul of Europe. With the approach on March 25 of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the founding document of European unity, France’s partners in the European Union are anxiously watching every step of this campaign. In Berlin, the anxiety borders on panic: Never have the stakes been higher for the future of the European project. Despised by the American president, attacked by Russia, abandoned by Britain, the European Union, with France and Germany as its pillars, needs to regroup for a new start. The election in France of a far-right, Europhobic president vowing to leave the eurozone would kill that dream. Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, told Der Tagesspiegel last week that a Le Pen victory would bring “the E.U. to the edge of the abyss.”
Will France stop the wave of populism? This is what this election is about. Some experts are already speculating that if the National Front leader is elected, she will not be able to muster a majority in Parliament in the June election. The most likely result would then be a “cohabitation,” in which a President Le Pen would have to work with a center-right or center-left prime minister and government. In that case, the two blocs would have to negotiate a compromise on some crucial issues; the first would be saving the euro.
This is where we are. As the saying goes, let’s hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Sylvie Kauffmann, the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, is a contributing opinion writer.