Photographer: JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images
Editorial Board

France Needs Someone to Stop Le Pen

If the National Front leader won the presidency, the European Union would be badly wounded -- perhaps fatally.

On Sunday, France’s Republican Party will choose its candidate for the presidential election next spring. Opinion polls say that the Republicans are so far ahead that the party, in effect, is about to name the next president -- either Alain Juppe or Francois Fillon, former prime ministers offering not-too-dissimilar conservative programs.

The polls, for once, had better be right. The likely alternative to either of those men would be disastrous -- and not just for France.

Support for the Socialist party has collapsed: President Francois Hollande’s approval rating stands (if that’s the right word) at 4 percent. So the Republican nominee is likely to face Marine Le Pen, leader of the populist National Front. She’s France’s answer to Donald Trump, except with more self-discipline, added xenophobia and a clearer sense of purpose. If she wins, the European Union would be badly and perhaps fatally wounded. By comparison, Brexit would be a minor nuisance.

Le Pen celebrated Britain’s vote to quit last June as the beginning of the end for the EU -- a project she’s called “objectively a total failure.” An EU without France, which designed and built the EU alongside Germany, is objectively a hard thing to imagine. A National Front victory would shake Europe more violently than Trump’s win has rocked the U.S.

The polls suggest that either Fillon or Juppe ought to beat her easily -- but there are many unknowns. It’s unclear who will stand for the Socialists, for example, or whether Emmanuel Macron (who quit the government earlier this year and leads a new party) will gather strong support. Right now, though, the threat from Le Pen looks real.

Q&A: Francois Fillon

Fillon did surprisingly well in the first round of the primary, and seems well-placed to beat Juppe for the nomination -- which is good, because he’d be the stronger rival to Le Pen. Compared with Juppe, he’s no friend of multiculturalism or the European Commission. He takes a hard line on “Islamic totalitarianism.” He says immigrants should assimilate, wants to curb immigration from outside the union, and proposes to reform (though not dismantle) the EU’s system for borderless intra-EU travel. This puts him in a better position to stop conservative support from leaching to Le Pen.

Fillon’s proposed tough-love economic reforms -- including labor-market deregulation -- also have the advantage of being just what France needs. The country may even be ready for them.

Le Pen isn’t Europe’s only populist insurgent, and dealing with this dangerous swelling of discontent isn’t a job for French politicians alone. The EU’s other member governments and institutions need to recognize the doubts that many citizens have about the project. Without pandering or surrendering, they need to show they’re listening. Ignoring these worries failed with Brexit. The union cannot afford to make the same mistake with France.