May 21, 2019   6 mins

Steve Bannon and Emmanuel Macron agree on one thing. Among the many mini-elections within this week’s European elections, the most significant will be in France: Macron v Le Pen, Round Two.

It’s the most important because of the globalist positioning of Macron,” said Bannon, the globe-trotting anti-globalist, in Paris last weekend. “It’s a referendum on Macron and his vision for Europe. There will be an earthquake when Marine wins on Sunday.”

Macron agrees about the importance of the event, but not Bannon’s seismological forecast. For six months the French president has been bigging up the 2019 European elections as a Good versus Evil choice between his vision of a reformed, “protective”, multi-layered European Union and the menace of resurgent nationalism.

He needs his list to win on Sunday – and opinion polls suggest it will be a close-run thing – to remain the Great Young Hope of pro-European politics. If Macron comes second to Le Pen, while his populist alter ego Matteo Salvini triumphs in Italy, the French president will appear diminished, even ridiculous.

President Macron’s supporters put the argument in a different, more practical way. A victory in Macron’s second face-off with Le Pen – this time a face-off at one remove – would reboot his presidency. It would, in effect, close the troublesome six months chapter of the waning Gilets Jaunes rebellion. It would give him new legitimacy to pursue the remainder of his reform programme, both in France and in Brussels.

Defeat for Macron’s party would change nothing in theory; in reality, though, it would mess up the remaining three years of his presidential term. It could revive a flagging Gilets Jaunes movement. It would rebuild Marine Le Pen’s damaged credibility as his principal challenger in 2022. It would cripple his hopes of emerging as the de facto leader of the European Union when Chancellor Angela Merkel retires.

Victory for Marine Le Pen on Sunday would merely repeat her party’s performance in the 2014 Euro-elections It would not make her favourite to win the next Presidential election in 2022. To “win”, or top the poll, on Sunday, she needs 24-25 % of a reduced nationwide vote – the turnout in France this week will not top 45%, compared to the 74% who voted in the second round of the last presidential election. To triumph in the second round in 2022, she needs over 50% of that higher turnout.

Bannon’s “earthquake” claim, though, is overblown. He may be a political genius in the United States. But his knowledge of European politics is sketchy, as he demonstrated in a series of grandiloquent interviews, and rapid retractions, with the French media this week.

The scourge of the international elite was speaking from an 2,500 euros a night suite in the Bristol Hotel near the Elysée Palace (a favoured resort of Hollywood stars and Arab princes). Bannon described himself as an “unofficial adviser” to Marine Le Pen and a source of “information” on her fund-raising.

Macron pounced. He accused Le Pen of being a fake nationalist in hock to foreigners. “I see for the first time,” the President said. “A connivance between the nationalists and foreign interests whose aim is to dismantle the European Union.”

Le Pen denied that she even knew that Bannon was in town. Unfortunately, this proved to be a lie. Two very senior figures in her Rassemblement National party had been spotted leaving the American’s suite.

If Le Pen does fall short on Sunday, Bannon can shoulder some of the blame. But Bannon is also right. The 2019 European elections (and the French section in particular) are more significant than usual.

Macron declared them to be so last November and once again this week – an “existential” battle between rising nationalism and his post-Brexit hopes of a European “renaissance”. His wager was doubled by the rise of the Gilet Jaunes movement in November. The stakes were raised again two weeks ago when Macron declared that he would commit all his “energy” to try to prevent Marine Le Pen’s party from topping the poll on 26 May.

In another country this would have been considered to be a statement of the obvious: political leader says he will try to win an election. In France, though, it was as a risky gambit – or a symptom of panic. Presidents of the Republic, by convention rather than Constitution, are not supposed to lower themselves to “mid-term” electoral politics.

Macron had little choice, though. Nathalie Loiseau, the former Europe Minister and career diplomat chosen to head the Macron party list, proved to be an inept and accident-prone campaigner. His centrist, pro-European electorate was showing little interest in the European campaign. So he, in effect, declared the European election to be a referendum on his presidency.

But, as he pointed out in an interview with the French regional press, what else was he to do? “I could not be a spectator,” he said. “I had to be an actor in the most important European election since (the first) in 1979.”

Macron also risks accusations of hypocrisy. He declared the European elections to be all about Europe. Only to then turn them into a personal and domestic duel with Ms Le Pen (even though neither are standing).

Since showing his hand, Macron has done little. He allowed his face to appear on election posters. He made a couple of statements at press briefings on other subjects. He gave an interview to the French regional press. He has yet to appear at a campaign meeting or speak on TV.

For many weeks, the opinion polls gave a slight lead over Le Pen to Macron’s party and its allies. The polls turned against him in early May, narrowed when he entered the campaign, lurched in Le Pen’s favour and have narrowed again in the final days.

Two recent tracking polls give the Rassemblement National 23.5% and Macron’s Renaissance list (La République en Marche and allies) 23%. Of 32 other lists in the fight (including various hues of socialists and nationalists, as well as greens, Communists, royalists, trotskyists, Gilets Jaunes, animalists and “active neutrals”) only the main centre-right list stretches its support as far as the mid-teens.

Le Pen’s predicted score is, in all honesty, rather poor. It is slightly below the 24.8% that she secured in the euro elections in 2014. She has gained little from Macron’s unpopularity and the continuing lamentable performance of the traditional centre-Right and centre-Left “parties of government”.

Macron, meanwhile, is struggling to match the 24% that allowed him to top the first round poll in the presidential elections two years ago. But in the final days of the campaign, the news has gone Macron’s way. Does this mean his celebrated luck will save him again?

A series of official figures on jobs and growth suggests that, whatever the Gilets Jaunes may say or do, the French economy is responding positively to Macron’s labour market and other reforms. Unemployment in metropolitan France has fallen to 8.4%, the lowest figure for 10 years. Permanent contract jobs are being created in their tens of thousands. International investment is surging. The French economy is growing more rapidly than Germany’s.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, has suffered a series of embarrassments. She was pictured giving an alleged white supremacy hand signal with an Estonian far-right politician and then made the lame assertion that she though that the gesture was an “OK” signal used by underwater divers

The sting operation which brought down her close ally, the Austrian far right leader Heinz-Christian Strache, mirrored allegations that Le Pen’s “France first” party relies on Russian and now American Alt Right funding. Ms Le Pen loyally but foolishly refused to criticise Mr Strache.

But the effect in the opinion polls has been, so far, minimal.

Macron’s problem is that the mildly rising vote for Le Pen in recent weeks has been mostly a vote against him. She is deemed to be the “only woman who can defeat Macron”. And although the Gilets Jaunes movement has subsided, the resentment and anger of a “left behind” Peripheral France remains. Some hard-left and centre-right voters are still resentful at the young upstart’s centrist triumph in 2017. They are tempted to trip up Macron by “lending” their vote to the far Right.

Macron’s own chances of sneaking a victory depend on galvanising his passive, even supine centrist and pro-European vote. Pierre Person, the deputy head of Macron’s LREM party, complained last week that half of the people who voted for Macron in the first round of the presidential election in 2017 showed no inclination to turn out on Sunday.

“We’re chasing 4,000,000 people in our base who appear to be unwilling to vote,” he said.

To try to prize these non-voters from whatever young Metropolitan liberals do on a Sunday, the Macron campaign has resorted to “We Must Block the Far Right” rhetoric rather than a positive appeal to European ideals. A series of senior pro-Macron figures, including the 1968 student leader Dany Cohn-Bendit, have made party political videos warning that Marine Le Pen is part of a concerted, Europe-wide movement to dismantle the EU and return to the nationalist “nightmares” of the past. It’s a French project fear.

If Le Pen’s party does pip Macron’s party to the post on Sunday – and the latest polls suggest that it might – it will be a serious reverse for the President. Even a defeat by a few thousand votes, meaningless in practical terms, would be a humiliation. Not a death blow; but not a good look.

For Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, a victory would be a great triumph – albeit an ephemeral one. As things stand, with the Left scattered and no clear alternative to Macron yet emerging on the centre-right, there will be a “Round Three” between the pair in 2022. This would be fought on terms much less favourable to the far-Right leader.

All the polling evidence suggests that a quarter of French voters are happy to kick the establishment, and especially to kick Macron, in an election with no domestic implications. But they would be unwilling to vote in large numbers for the jumbled, contradictory and unformed policies of the Rassemblement National at a national election which demands a clear majority in the second round.

Whatever the result on Sunday, and regardless of what Bannon says, France is still far from ready to contemplate a President Le Pen.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.