The British general election may not be a foregone conclusion, exactly, but it is a lot more predictable than the first round of the French presidential election tomorrow. The opinion polls – the final ones were published on Friday because they are banned the day before voting – put the four leading candidates within the margin of error of each other. Which means that the six possible pairs of candidate are almost equally likely to make it through to the second round in two weeks’ time.
Of those six possible pairings, one would be disastrous for France and for the European Union: a run-off between Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. They are both hostile to the EU and if either were to succeed to the presidency it could spell the end of the euro and of the EU as we know it. While there are problems with sustaining the currency union, which imposes terrible austerity on southern Europe, a disorderly breakup of the euro is in nobody’s interest. As for the EU itself, we are fortunate that our European partners have taken the British decision to leave with such equanimity, but if France were to leave too it is hard to see how it can survive. Then the continent would be prey to competing nationalisms and we might learn the hard way that the Union really has helped to keep the postwar peace.
We have to hope, then, that when the French people roll the dice, they come up with one of the other five numbers. For if either Ms Le Pen or Mr Mélenchon, the anti-EU left-winger, gets through to the second round, the opinion polls suggest – by rather more emphatic margins – that they would lose to one of their pro-EU rivals.
Of those two, Emmanuel Macron and François Fillon, The Independent prefers the youth and excitement of Mr Macron, not for their own sake but because they are not the cynicism of his opponent. The failure of Mr Fillon to account for the public money paid to his family would, it is to be hoped, have sunk a candidate for high office in the UK, but 20 per cent of French voters at least seem to take a more indulgent view.
Mr Macron is, in any case, an interesting candidate. He seems underqualified for the presidency, having served – for a mere two years – as a junior minister in the government of his former Socialist Party colleague, Manuel Valls. He has adopted an ambiguous ideological stance, as a free-market centrist, originally on the left but who regarded his old party as an obstacle on the road to the Élysée Palace. His judgement appeared to have been vindicated when the Socialist Party chose Benoît Hamon as its candidate for the presidency, a left-winger who enthuses party stalwarts but not the wider electorate, and who now languishes in a distant fifth place.
However, Mr Macron has campaigned well enough to make him the betting favourite to emerge triumphant from the second round on 7 May. He is a liberal on immigration, and opposes the ban on headscarves. And he generally says the right things about the threat of climate change.
Mr Macron has one final virtue to recommend him. It is that, according to those opinion polls, he is the candidate most likely to beat Ms Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, whose election would be the worst outcome. Her attempt to exploit this week’s shooting of a police officer by a terrorist to stir up hatred of foreigners should have confirmed that she, above all, is the candidate that France should not choose.