Incumbents in democracies often struggle in testing times. These surely qualify. Already wrestling like every other country with the inflationary fallout from a pandemic, France now has to reckon with Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine. In the face of these challenges, Macron’s policies have been mostly good. Le Pen’s positions range from reckless to outright delusional.
On the economy, Macron has been bitterly criticized for urging further reform of France’s pension system, including a plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 by 2030. Under pressure, he’s said he’s willing to discuss a more gradual change and that compromise is possible. Fine — but note the crucial point: Reform is indeed necessary. Despite earlier efforts, France’s pension system is still notoriously ill-designed and, at a cost of roughly 14% of gross domestic product, among the most expensive in the world. Macron is right that the system is simply unsustainable without a higher retirement age.
In reply, Le Pen promises to make things worse. She proposes a retirement age of 60 for many workers. She also wants to scrap the income tax for those under 30, and reduce value-added tax on energy from 20% to 5.5%. No doubt, this program is a bold response to popular concerns about spiking inflation and pressure on living standards. It’s also a formula for national bankruptcy.
Critics say Macron started his campaign for re-election too late, and fault him for his reluctance to debate his opponents. There’s something to this, though he certainly has a good excuse: He’s been leading Europe’s diplomatic effort to de-escalate the war in Ukraine, for which he justly earned credit from the French public. As it turned out, his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin came to nothing, but he was right to try.
In contrast, Le Pen’s position on Putin and his war has been disturbingly feckless. Before the assault on Ukraine, she and the Russian autocrat were political allies, obliging each other with photo opportunities and expressions of mutual regard. Even now, having moderated her evident admiration, she still calls for “strategic rapprochement” with Russia once peace is restored in Ukraine — and she opposes close cooperation with NATO, arguing that the alliance threatens France with “submission to an American protectorate.”
This blend of nationalism and paranoia also infuses her thinking on Europe. Again, she softened her position in preparing for the campaign and is no longer proposing, for instance, to pull France out of the euro currency system. She sees Brexit as a success, but rather than quitting the EU altogether, says she wants to reform it from the inside — with policies that would deny Brussels resources and dismantle core commitments on intra-EU migration, competition and the single market. For the rest of Europe, this is a greater danger than the U.K.’s more focused dedication to self-harm ever posed.
In all these ways, a Le Pen presidency is a threat: to France’s economic future, to the fight against Russian aggression, and to the unity of the West. Though Macron has made his share of mistakes, he has more than proved himself deserving of a second term. Comparing the two candidates, the result of the runoff really shouldn’t be in doubt. The fact that it could go either way is truly alarming.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Marine Le Pen’s Plan for Europe Would Be a Gift to Putin: Lionel Laurent
• Germany Must Wean Itself Off Russian Gas Sooner, Not Later: Chris Bryant
• Ukraine War Is Depleting America’s Arsenal of Democracy: Hal Brands
The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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