If Marine Le Pen were to become the French president, it would be a catastrophe for everyone who wants an open and functioning Europe. Although, admittedly, it is a catastrophe we could have seen coming. The date for the second, decisive round of the French presidential election, May 7, has been set for months. For many months now, those governing in Berlin und Brussels have been able to follow how the head of the Front National has been coming closer, step by measured step, to her goal, the top seat in the Élysée Palace.
Which begs the question: what will the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her fellow leaders do if the worst was to happen. What are their plans for the day after?
Anyone listening in, along the hallways of ministries in Berlin and Brussels and in business and government circles will make an astounding discovery. Everyone is spending their days anxious. Whether minister or diplomat, banker or European commissioner, they are hoping and fearing, trying not to think about it and wringing their hands. There is just one thing they are obviously not doing: They are not preparing for the worst.
So, what if Marine Le Pen were to win?
"We are trusting in the common sense of the French," says a European commissioner in Brussels. Strictly off the record, of course. No one wants to be mentioned by name. The fear is Ms. Le Pen could take advantage of any such public statements.
What if it doesn’t turn out that way: What if French anger is greater than French common sense?
"We don’t anticipate that."
But wouldn’t it be reasonable to make contingency plans?
"No, no . . ." The commissioner falls silent.
Many in Berlin are also clinging to the hope that what shouldn’t happen, won’t. To be sure, a Le Pen election victory would be like "a nuclear bomb for Europe," a high-ranking German diplomat admits. But no, he quickly adds, that’s not going to happen.
Because the Front National doesn’t have a large enough voter base. Because so far Ms. Le Pen has never gotten more than 6.8 million votes in nationwide elections; 45 million French voters are eligible to cast their ballots. Because the opposition is too great and because Ms. Le Pen, even if she were to take the lead in the first ballot, wouldn’t have a chance in the run-off. Because, because, because. There are many reasons – given "sober analysis" - that speak against Ms. Le Pen winning the election. The Berlin diplomat lines them up like prayer beads on a string. The transition from sober analysis to wishful thinking is fluid though.
Those in authority should know better. They also tried to reassure themselves prior to the British referendum and the presidential elections in the USA. Back then, they also noted that common sense, history and electoral numbers stood against Mr. Trump and a Brexit. And so far the election campaign has been going very well for Ms. Le Pen. Her rivals are stumbling, or they are undermining themselves. The polling institutions continue to put the nationalists in first place, for the first ballot.
At least last year, when faced with the threat of a Brexit, Germany’s foreign office had something resembling an emergency plan. The British had barely voted and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, foreign minister at the time, called together his colleagues from the European Union’s other founding member states to meet in Villa Borsig in Berlin. Foreign ministers from France, Italy, Germany, and the Benelux states jointly declared their intention to strengthen the E.U. more than ever. The meeting was a confident demonstration even if it was mostly symbolic. And a working group in the foreign office had prepared for that day for months, and they did so jointly with their colleagues from the French foreign office. Angela Merkel even telephoned François Hollande that night.
But who will she call this time? And with whom should German diplomats coordinate? There would no partners in Paris anymore. Apart from the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, also known as the AfD, no one has been in touch with the Front National.
Marine Le Pen has left no doubts about her goals. "It is time to do away the E.U.," she reiterated only a few days ago. People close to her stress that the project with the highest priority during the first months of her presidency will be France’s exit from the euro. So whoever votes for Ms. Le Pen knows exactly what they are voting for.