By Gwynne Dyer

French President Emmanuel Macron won the first round of the presidential election on Sunday, but he’s still in trouble. He knew he would be. Here’s what he said on Saturday.

“Don’t believe the pundits and the pollsters who tell you that it’s impossible (that the far right will win in the second round of the election). Look at Brexit and so many elections, all that seemed improbable and yet came to pass. Nothing is impossible.”

In fact, it’s not even unlikely. Strategies have consequences, as Macron is now learning. The strategy that made Macron president last time (2017) has succeeded so well that it may cost him the election in the second round this time (24 April).

Macron’s strategy has always been to exaggerate the difference between the centre and the rest. If the left was too far left and the right was too far right, then the politician representing the centre (him) was the only rational choice.

It worked for him in 2017, when he waltzed into the presidency with a 66% majority of the vote despite the fact that he had never held elective office before. Fast forward five years, however, and the fantasy has become the fact.

The traditional moderate left-wing party, the Socialists, has been devoured by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s extreme left ‘La France Insoumise’ (Rebel France), which advocates withdrawal from NATO and also, in effect, from the European Union.

The Socialists only got 4.8% in the first round of voting on Sunday, which means they don’t even get their election expenses reimbursed. The party may actually declare bankruptcy and disappear.

The traditional centre-right party, the Republicans, is suffering exactly the same fate. It too has fallen short of the 5% threshold and may go broke. Its place as standard-holder of the right has been taken by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which remains ultra-nationalist, racist and anti-immigrant despite a cosmetic make-over that downplays its uglier policies.

Fully half of France’s voting population has just voted for extremist parties, and according to the polls Le Pen is heading into the run-off still holding most of those votes. The latest numbers say Macron 51%, Le Pen 49%, which is effectively neck-and-neck.

Despite Covid, France is actually in good shape after five years of Macron. Investment is up, inflation is low, jobs are plentiful, the country is even opening more factories than it closes. But the French do not feel good about their lot, and Le Pen could actually win. If she does, a great deal will change, and not just in France.

The new-found unity of ‘The West’ in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will vanish: Le Pen’s campaign pamphlets feature a picture of her with Vladimir Putin, another hard-right icon. She has stopped talking aloud about ‘Frexit’, but it’s still there in the background somewhere, as is the anti-immigrant racism her party has always peddled.

She is much more than Donald Trump in a skirt. She is far more intelligent than he is, and not at all corrupt. She is racist and Islamophobic, but much better at dog-whistling her true convictions. If the League of Authoritarian Leaders ever needs an honorary president, she would be the best candidate for the job.

Despite all this, I think Macron will win, because the French aren’t fools. But it may be a near-run thing.