EU disintegration? Here's the probability of France's far right ending the largest civilization project of the 20th century
With Marine le Pen transforming her National Front (NF) into a party for the populist era, analysts have been carefully assessing how French elections in May could deal a "severe blow" to the European Union (EU).
"It's difficult to imagine how the European Union could function should such a Euroskeptic (as Le Pen) be at the helm of one if its major economies … It would likely precede its fracturing," Michael Hessel, political economist at Absolute Strategy Research, told CNBC via telephone.
He said that that low voter turnout would be Le Pen's best hope of securing an unlikely election victory. He projected Le Pen had up to a one-in-five chance of becoming French president in May.
Le Pen has promised to renegotiate the terms of France's membership of the European Union if elected president in May. However, her chances of victory appear to be limited. Opinion polls suggest Le Pen would be defeated by the former conservative prime minister and her most likely political rival, Francois Fillon, in the second and final round of voting.
A survey by Kantar Sofres released on Sunday placed Fillon on 21 percent of the vote, just behind social-democrat Emmanuel Macron on 22 percent. Meanwhile, Le Pen remains the leading candidate on 25 percent. The NF leader is well positioned to secure enough votes to reach the second round, however, the same survey expects her to lose out to either Fillon or Emmanuel Macron, France's former economy minister, in that next round by at least 20 percentage points.
Le Pen may yet harbor some hope of election success though. As was the case with President Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in the U.K., French citizens could defy expectations in the voting booth and polls may not truly reflect sentiment in the country.
Political leaders across Europe have voiced their concern that a Le Pen victory would cast significant doubt over the future of the EU. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told local radio station Onda Cero on Thursday that he did want to think about the possibility of a Le Pen presidency.
"It would simply mean the destruction of Europe," Rajoy concluded.
"After Brexit last year, if enemies of Europe manage again in the Netherlands or in France to get results then we face the threat that the largest civilization project of the 20th century, namely the European Union, could fall apart," Sigmar Gabriel, German economy minister told parliament on Thursday.
EU at risk of disintegrating?
Despite Le Pen's charge towards a so-called "Frexit", the majority of French citizens reportedly wish to remain in the EU with its membership enshrined in the constitution. Therefore, Le Pen would be required to seek approval for constitutional amendments from the National Assembly and the Senate before being able to host a referendum which the majority of citizens are likely to reject.
"It is quite hard to quantify (Le Pen's) chances, but I would put them at around 10 percent - not impossible, but not very likely either," Larissa Brunner, analyst for western Europe at think tank Oxford Analytica, told CNBC in an email.
"(Should Le Pen deliver 'Frexit'), it could put the future of the EU into question. I don't think the EU would collapse – after all, there would still be 26 countries left – but without one of its key founding members it would lose global influence and could slowly disintegrate."
"It could even turn into a merely economic union and become more similar to the European Economic Area (EEA) or the customs union. Assuming a 'Frexit' goes smoothly, other countries such as Italy could follow," Brunner added.
Deep soul searching
Meanwhile, analysts at Citi also believe that a vote by France to leave the EU wouldn't necessary spell its end.
"Probably not, since the union does not depend on any pre-determined list of member states. But it would likely deal a severe blow to the institution, with one of its founding and largest members no longer seeing much value in maintaining the four freedoms on the movement of people, goods, services and capital," the analysts said in a note on January 5.
Should Le Pen renegotiate France's position within the EU, it would likely result in one of two scenarios, according to the team at Citi. One option could be for France to leave the EU in the form of a Norway-like model, since immigration does not appear to be the main issue for its citizens.
Alternatively, the country could remain in the EU but leave the euro and the Schengen passport-free travel zone.
"Both of these would still trigger an episode of deep soul searching for Europe and most likely lead to some refocusing on EU key priorities," Citi analysts concluded.