On the night of his narrow win in the first round of the French Presidential election Emmanuel Macron thanked his supporters in front of two huge flags — one the tricolor of France, the other the 12 stars on a blue background the symbolises the European Union.
The next day his opponent in round two, Marine Le Pen, announced she was stepping aside from the leadership of her hard right National Front Party because she believed that as a presidential candidate she should be “above partisan issues”.
The battle-lines have been drawn and the overriding issue in the campaign will be the future of France in Europe.
Macron’s belief in the European experiment is total. The EU, he says, should be at the heart of French politics — he would seek closer cooperation between its members in finance, defence and immigration.
That does not mean he accepts the current state of the union, but he is passionate about reform coming from within and, if the United Kingdom is to leave, to be driven by its two remaining large members, France and Germany.
Le Pen, on the other hand, makes no secret that she would be happy to see the EU implode and a return to independent nation states — a system that has repeatedly plunged the continent into war over the decades and centuries before the Treaty of Rome.
She knows she has the job ahead of her, and is well aware that in 2002 when her father, Jean-Marie, managed to sneak into the second round after a split in the leftist vote, he gathered hardly any extra support and was trounced by the Gaullist, Jacques Chirac.
Distancing herself from the National Front is not only an attempt to lure voters from centre-right parties but incredibly, to woo the far left of La France Insoumise which has absolutely nothing in common with her except a distaste for European integration and globalisation generally.
The speed with which the extremes of ‘right’ and ‘left’ can merge into each other is on display in Russia. Who would have imagined that the former apparatchiks of the Soviet Union would be toasting the fortunes of a hard right Marine Le Pen, as happened quite publically in the Kremlin at the weekend?
Macron’s initial strong showing follows defeats for nationalists in Austria and the Netherlands — an indication the right’s gleeful prediction of an EU demise is premature. On the face of it the former investment banker and public servant is an unlikely champion to lead the fightback against populism, but then again, these are unusual times.