The victory for Marine Le Pen's Front National in the French regional elections at the weekend is bad news for the Eurozone--but we won't know just how bad for another week.
You might think that a thumping first-round victory for a party that doesn't really believe in the single currency (or any other part of Europe's 'Ever Closer Union' agenda) is just bad news for the currency bloc's cohesion per se. But there is bad news and there is disastrous news, and disaster is still 17 months away.
That's because France is one of Europe's more centralized countries, concentrating executive power in the office of the presidency. Historically, the presidential election in France is the only one that counts for much. The Presidential elections use a two-round system of votes that sees the top two candidates go head-to-head in a run-off. These days, more often than not, the final result depends on the tactical switches of those who vote for all the unsuccessful candidates in the first round.
If the electorate rallies with discipline and energy around the best option for defeating the FN in the second round, then the guardians of the euro from Portugal to Estonia will breathe a sigh of relief. There will be a very different sigh if it doesn't.
The second round of the regional elections next week doesn't quite copy the presidential model (only parties polling below 5% are eliminated), but it offers enough potential for tactical voting to give a rough idea of how the chips could fall if Le Pen reaches the run-off for the Elysée, as pretty much all the opinion polls of this year suggest she will.
The FN came top of the polls in six of the 12 regions in mainland France Sunday, polling between 30.5% and 40.6% in the regions it carried. Nationwide, it polled 27.7%, more than either President Francois Hollande's Socialists (23.1%) or the center-right grouping of his center-right rival (and predecessor) Nicolas Sarkozy (26.7%).
Already, the Socialists have withdrawn from the second round in the regions where the FN polled over 40%. They've encouraged their supporters to vote instead for the center-right in the run-off. But in an indication of how hard it will be to herd those cats together, the 'Républicain' bloc has made no parallel offer to withdraw to clear the path for the Socialists in the regions where it came third. It's not hard to see how mutual suspicion among mainstream party voters could lead more to stay home in the second round on Sunday, and gift the FN a platform from which to launch a presidential bid.
Whatever the outcome, the latest vote shows a bigger-than-ever disconnect between the French élite, which has always wanted more European integration (if only on its own terms), and the population, which is now "firmly against any further integration," says Simon Tilford, head of research at the Center for European Reform in London.
"There's even less likelihood now of major institutional reform," Tilford says.
That's a problem, given that the biggest risk to the single currency remains its lack of credible institutions--problems covered for now by the flood of easy money from the European Central Bank. There is still no common Treasury, no mutual guarantee for each others' debts, no hard and fast mutual guarantee of bank deposits. That wouldn't matter so much if countries were now committed to balanced budgets and bringing their debt levels down, but Hollande himself effectively ripped up a much-touted 2012 deal on that by announcing he would prioritize security spending over deficit reduction in the wake of the Paris attacks.
Berlin, so vociferous in its condemnation of smaller countries' deficit sins, responded with a deafening silence to that announcement, aware that to complain would have fitted into Le Pen's rhetoric of French subservience to Germany. Holger Schmieding, chief economist with Berenberg Bank in Berlin, reckons that Hollande will have carte blanche from Berlin on the budget until 2017, and that this week's defeat will make him less eager than ever to push through unpopular economic reforms to get the country's record jobless down.
"Marine Le Pen as president, with a parliament dominated by her radicals and left-wing ones, is the worst possible scenario for Europe," he says, noting that such a France would make demands on Eurozone governance that Germans would never be able to accept.
France still won't be lost even if the FN wins one or more local governments next Sunday. Greece's experiments this year show how the responsibility of government can explode the pretensions of radicals, after all. But, as CER's Tilford points out, "the politics have been moving in a worrying direction for a long time." Unless something changes the direction of travel, it's only a matter of time before Europe's pivotal economy and body politic finds itself ruled by a motley bunch of neo-, crypto- and quasi-fascists absolutely irreconcilable with Europe's current status quo.