United States officials are anxiously watching the French presidential election, aware that the outcome of the vote could scramble President Biden’s relations with Europe and reveal dangerous fissures in Western democracy.
President Emmanuel Macron of France has been a crucial partner as Mr. Biden has rebuilt relations with Europe, promoted democracy and forged a coalition in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
His challenger, Marine Le Pen, is a populist agitator who, in the style of former President Donald J. Trump, scorns European Union “globalists,” criticizes NATO and views President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as an ally.
Her victory could complicate Mr. Biden’s effort to isolate Russia and aid Ukraine. But the very real prospect of a nationalist leading France is also a reminder that the recent period of U.S.-European solidarity on political and security issues like Russia and democracy may be fragile. Poland and Hungary, both NATO members, have taken authoritarian turns. And Germany’s surprisingly strong response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already drawing domestic criticism.
“To have a right-wing government come to power in France would be a political earthquake,” said Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown who was the Europe director of the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “It would send a troubling signal about the overall political health of the Western world.”
He added: “This is a moment of quite remarkable European unity and resolve. But Le Pen’s election would certainly raise profound questions about the European project.”
One senior U.S. official noted that France had a recent history of right-wing candidates striking fear into the political establishment before falling short. That was the case five years ago, when Mr. Macron defeated Ms. Le Pen in a runoff.
But recent elections in the West have been prone to upsets, and analysts warned against complacency in Washington, especially given the stakes for the United States.
For the Biden team, the fallout from a Le Pen victory would extend well beyond policies toward Russia and deal a blow to his project of bolstering democracy against authoritarianism worldwide, said Daniel Baer, the acting director of the Europe program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Biden sees this moment as a contest between democracy and autocracy,” he said. “Over the longer term, certainly having one of the world’s most revered, advanced democracies elect an illiberal person would be a setback for the cause of democracy writ large.”