FRENCH CONNECTION

To defeat Marine Le Pen, France’s center-left must put their nation ahead of party politics

Donald Trump groupie and National Front leader Marine Le Pen is confident she will emerge the big winner in the corruption scandal engulfing the French presidential race right now.

François Fillon, a conservative Catholic on a Thatcherite belt-tightening mission has been, since he won the Les Republicains party’s primary contest in November, the national frontrunner. But with the governing center-left’s primary slated for Sunday, the opposition candidate Fillon is slumping in the polls and may even be forced to drop out. This week, reports surfaced that Fillon’s wife pocketed half a million Euros as his “fake” parliamentary assistant. (Fillon has denied the accusation.)

Le Pen would appear to be the direct beneficiary of the conservative party candidate’s slide in approval. She is currently polling in second place overall in advance of the presidential run-off in May—and spent Friday (link in French) hawking anti-Fillon slogans.

But the fractured French center-left has other ideas. A serious plan is afoot to tactically outmaneuver Le Pen’s bid by uniting behind a popular albeit fresh-faced independent. The left’s drastic measures are also designed to avoid a catastrophe à l’américaine. If the French liberal establishment wasn’t worried about Le Pen earlier this year, it certainly is now. The world watched this fall as America’s progressive movement splintered over Hillary Clinton—an ideological split that may have helped deliver victory to Trump.

Socialists are themselves still haunted by the political ghost of Le Pen père Jean-Marie, the founder of the far right party his daughter now leads. Le Pen senior left le parti socialiste in tatters when he eliminated their candidate, Lionel Jospin, in the first round of the presidential election back in 2002 and Jacques Chirac was left alone to fend off Le Pen in the final round of voting.

At the time, center-left voters held their noses and voted overwhelmingly for Chirac to keep Le Pen out of the presidential palace. The fear is that the same electorate will struggle to get behind conservative party candidate Fillon this time around, a traditional religious right-wing figure who mimics some of Le Pen’s rhetoric on French identity and Islam, and is far more focused on fiscal restraint than Chirac ever was.

As a result, growing numbers of mainstream liberals are frantically plotting to abandon their radical Socialist wing to block the anti-immigrant, Muslim-bashing, and far more electable Le Pen junior from qualifying for the May ballot. (The French presidential election has two rounds, one on April 23 and the decider on May 7, with the two first-place getters in the first ballot qualifying for the final). Ahead of Sunday, senior Socialist party figures are signaling they will, if required, break away from the hard-left tax and spend candidate Benoit Hamon. Hamon is favored to defeat ex-prime minister Manuel Valls for his party’s nomination but seems unlikely to vanquish Le Pen.

Enter Emmanuel Macron. The 39-year-old independent candidate is a dynamic if relative newcomer to French politics whose centrist, modernizing stance could, according to his backers, unite the moderate left faithful and pull votes away from the embattled center-right. Macron resigned in 2016 as outgoing president Francois Hollande’s economy minister after pushing through landmark labor law reforms. He is running on an economically liberal, pro-Europe platform under the banner of his political grouping, “On the Move.”

It was a bold gamble in a nation tired of the same old faces in politics, and Macron has increased steadily in the polls. He is now polling at 20% of the total vote and rising, compared to Le Pen at 26% and Fillon at 25%. More than 150,000 voters, apparently seduced by Macron’s promise to invigorate the economy and bring back innovation and jobs, have signed up to join his movement. Thousands of mostly young French fans have flocked to his Obamaesque (with a dash of Bernie Sanders and a smidge of Trump) public meetings around the country.

None of Fillon’s potential replacements—including the more moderate Alain Juppe, or harder right former president Nicolas Sarkozy—have Macron’s youthful appeal either. The theory is that if the Socialists can pull off a center-left unity ticket with the English-speaking, German-friendly Macron, they could successfully derail Le Pen and maybe even have a long shot at beating the conservatie candidate in the final round.

Macron already has the friendly ear of former Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal. Other sympathizers include supporters of Valls. A group of MPs allied with Valls’s push for the nomination have started circulating a communique to release early next week, paving the way for a mass defection to Macron. Even France’s Green party has signaled it may be willing to join forces. Dany ‘The Red” Cohn-Bendit, co-founder of the ecologist party EELV, said he was ready to vote for Macron because he was “the only candidate” who could avoid the impossible dilemma of a Le Pen-Fillon duel. Cohn-Bendit explained (link in French) Macron’s vertiginous rise in the polls as evidence of “a desire for renewal, new faces, new ideas, new personalities.”

Meanwhile, Socialist president Hollande, who in December announced he would not seek reelection, is reportedly warming to the idea of Macron. This makes sense: If Hamon wins the Socialist party primary, Hollande’s legacy could end up consigned to the political dustheap along with the center-left agenda.

But it is Trump who may have provided Macron with his biggest opportunity to gain momentum. The US president’s threatening inauguration speech produced a sudden shift in the European Union. Political leaders are scrambling to adjust to a world where their regional bloc is squeezed between an America seeking closer ties with Russia and Brexit-focused UK.

Macron is capitalizing on this anxiety, pitching himself as an enthusiastic defender of a forward-looking, economically open, and socially progressive agenda for Europe. In an op-ed this week for the Financial Times Macron articulated a comprehensive free trade platform consisting of a “sovereign Europe” that scales up cooperation within the EU but pays close attention to the problems of “elites” forging ahead without popular support.

On foreign policy, Macron has none of the baggage of Fillon or Sarkozy, who are close to Vladimir Putin. Macron openly supports German chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies on refugees, backs NATO, the UN and Western human rights. Paradoxically, Trump’s attacks on the EU could, if Macron prevails, result in a much stronger more federalized EU.

The French presidential election, like the recent contest in the US, is shaping up to be a bitter battle of ideas. But neither Macron’s powers of persuasion nor Fillon’s alleged corruption will defeat Le Pen. For that, Macron and his fellow travelers on the center-left will need to put aside their differences and join forces in the service of the greater good. If they can pull such a display of cross-party cooperation, Europe and the liberal internationalist world order will be the better for it.

Follow Emma-Kate on Twitter at @eksymons. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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