France remains one of the cornerstones of the European Union. A founding member of the organisation, it has been French philosophy that has shaped the ideology of the bloc and French systems and vocabulary of administration- "conseil", "stage"- that dictate the implementation of policy. The EU, primarily conceived as a way of eroding the hostility of enemies, in practice has become a way for France to project its power and influence over the whole bloc.
The latest alliance- of President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel at first sight looks like only the latest in a long series of Paris-Berlin (or Bonn) arrangements that have come to constitute the "Franco-German motor" of the EU.
Yet the signs are there, for all who can read them, that all is not well.
The attempts to rationalise and reform the European Union that have been underway for over a decade culminated in the EU Constitution: a document primarily crafted be a former French President- Valery Giscard d'Estaing- and full of the phraseology that L'Academie Francaise could approve- or even understand. Yet as we know, the French rejected the document in a decisive referendum. Although another founding member- the Netherlands- also rejected the document a few days later, it was the French rejection that was fatal to the project.
Yet France has long possessed significant anti-federalist, even Euro sceptic, political forces. These have tended to group into the anti-capitalist parties of the extreme left and the ultra-Gaullist believers in the French nation state who shade into the Pujardist and ultra nationalist Front National. As the left continues its slow decay, it has become the Front National that has been the primary standard bearer of Euro Scepticism, based upon a certain idea of French identity and nationalism.
Yet the leadership of the Front National, under the ex-soldier, Jean Marie Le Pen has not made the political breakthrough that they hoped. In 2002, despite the strong hostility of the media, Le Pen was able to knock out the Socialist candidate for President, Lionel Jospin and enter the run-off against the incumbent President Jacques Chirac. - yet Le Pen was crushed in the second round as voters decided that even the compromised and corrupt Chirac was a better choice that the bluntly racist Le Pen. Alarmed by the rise of the Front National, the politicians of the Gaullist right adopted several key policies of the FN, and for a while the threat seems to have receded- certainly the FN did not perform well in the 2011 regional elections.
Yet in recent weeks, the opinion polls are showing an increasing momentum behind Le Pen's youngest daughter, Marine, in her campaign for the Presidency in 2012. At the moment the Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande is ahead, even though he is usually described as a lacklustre or wooden figure, often outshone by his glamorous former partner, Segolene Royal.
Nicolas Sarkozy has proven himself to be a tough fighter- but he remains unpopular and is struggling in the polls- as Marine Le Pen continues to close the gap. The point is that Marine Le Pen does not have the blunt-to-the-point-of-brutal manner of her father. She is riding the wave of the the unpopularity of the Euro and the wider European Union project.
At the moment the conventional wisdom is that Hollande and Sarkozy will face each other in the run-off. However, if Sarkozy were to lose to Le Pen in the first round, then the second round could be a rather different affair than in 2002. Chirac was able to appeal across the political spectrum- yet Hollande is too much a man of the left to be able to do that- at best, Marine Le Pen would score a higher result than her father did a decade ago.
What about at worst?
Though the chances may be small, I do not think we can rule out entirely a Le Pen victory. The concerns of Euro sceptics have only grown over the past five years- and I for one have heard forthright support for Le Pen from very surprising quarters. Of course such a result would be a political earthquake- but as the No vote in 2005 showed, the French are not afraid of political earthquakes- indeed they seem to enjoy rocking the establishment boat.
It may be a small chance today- but Le Pen has momentum and the French voters are in an angry mood- so even such a radical an idea as victory for Marine Le Pen can not be entirely dismissed.