Last Sunday marked the beginning of the French presidential vote; the runoff election will take place on April 24, and incumbent president Emmanuel Macron winning again is no sure thing. If she plays her cards right, challenger Marine Le Pen has a legitimate shot at becoming the next president of France.

Macron emerged victorious in the first round with 27 percent of the vote, followed by Le Pen with 23 percent. For the nationalist Le Pen, it is the second time she has qualified for the runoff, and thus the second time she is running against...

Last Sunday marked the beginning of the French presidential vote; the runoff election will take place on April 24, and incumbent president Emmanuel Macron winning again is no sure thing. If she plays her cards right, challenger Marine Le Pen has a legitimate shot at becoming the next president of France.

Macron emerged victorious in the first round with 27 percent of the vote, followed by Le Pen with 23 percent. For the nationalist Le Pen, it is the second time she has qualified for the runoff, and thus the second time she is running against Macron. In 2017, she lost to Macron 66 percent to 33 percent, crushing once again the ambitions of her National Rally party.

This year, however, will be a much closer call. Early polling ahead of the second round of voting — two weeks away — has Macron ahead by only 52 percent to 48 percent, making the days leading up to the vote crucial. On April 20, both candidates will square off in a televised debate. Macron mostly refrained from campaigning in the first round, avoiding the debate stage with the myriad of other candidates in an attempt to seem above the fray.

Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon secured 22 percent of the vote — a meaningful political indicator, as the anti-NATO Mélenchon gathered most of the left-wing electorate. Those leftist voters who increasingly support more radical alternatives to the center-left parties will now be needed for Macron’s reelection. In a speech following the results, Mélenchon said that “not one vote should be given to Madame Le Pen” but came short of endorsing Emmanuel Macron.

On the other side, far-right columnist-turned-politician Eric Zemmour (7 percent of the vote) called upon his loyal supporters to vote for Marine Le Pen in the runoff, which, if they follow suit, will bring her close to the 33 percent mark she secured in 2017. To score a victory, though, that will be far from enough to make the cut.

That said, the vote isn’t in the bag for Macron. He needs to make sure moderates rally behind him, which is asking a lot for many. France has at last emerged from its stringent Covid-19 rules and is currently suffering the consequences of low purchasing power. The government’s climate rules caused the Yellow Vest protests in 2018, which quickly turned violent. The Emmanuel Macron who voters thought they knew in 2017 is very different from the Macron on the ballot this month. He knows this well.

The challenge for Marine Le Pen will be to remind the audience during the TV debate that Macron has disappointed them, hoping left-wing voters will shrug and stay home on that decisive Sunday. Her campaign has primarily been about the diminishing purchasing power of the French, avoiding discussing the war in Ukraine as much as she can. On the other hand, Macron will likely attempt to attract attention to Le Pen’s anti-immigration stances, her anti-EU positions, and her friendliness towards Vladimir Putin. His strategy will not be about convincing the public of his record, but rather seeming like the rational choice in the second round.

For the European Union, the French presidential vote couldn’t come at a more inconvenient time. France is currently in charge of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which changes every six months. The war in Ukraine has required leadership in the EU, yet Macron is facing a threat to his reign that not only fundamentally questions his domestic policy, but also his foreign policy.

Whether Marine Le Pen would be a Russian asset in the Elysée Palace will tear commentators apart over the next two weeks, but it can absolutely be said that a Le Pen presidency would serve Russia’s interests a lot more than a second Macron term. That reason alone is likely to mobilize a lot of voters in the runoff election. In fact, rarely has foreign policy been such a crucial factor in modern French politics.

After the end of Angela Merkel’s reign as chancellor of Germany, Macron coined himself the unofficial leader of the European Union. He got his preferred pick for Commission president and has been in charge of setting the agenda, while new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is still trying to make a name for himself in domestic politics. The war in Ukraine has also broken the alliance between Hungary and Poland, with Warsaw upset over Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán’s lack of a strong response towards Russia.

The stage is set for Macron to continue his role as Europe’s king. However, if the French left abandons the idea of upholding the moderate consensus and doesn’t rally their supporters around the incumbent president, it could all end on April 24.