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Globe editorial: In France’s election, can the centre hold?

The Le Pen family haunts French politics. Respectable French voters live in fear that Marine Le Pen will lead in the first round of the presidential elections, and even slip ahead in the second round. That would leave good bourgeois citizens feeling like cryptofascists. After that, Ms. Le Pen would move into the Élysée Palace, the French equivalent of the White House and Buckingham Palace.

That nightmare never quite happens, but it never quite goes away. The first round of French voting is Sunday. Odds are that Ms. Le Pen will end up as one of the two top finishers – sending her to the second round runoff. Like Donald Trump, she has high negatives. Like Mr. Trump, it is far from clear who will prevent her from winning.

The most likely next president of France is Emmanuel Macron, a social-democrat and former cabinet minister who has emerged from the crumbling Socialist Party. He leads the polls, barely.

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Then there is a far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Comparisons are made to insurgent Senator Bernie Sanders in the U.S., but Mr. Mélenchon is much more radical. He is running a close third in the polls – which means it's possible, though not likely, that the second round could be Le Pen vs. Mélenchon.

The French business world is deeply worried by the possibility of a disappearing middle, and having to choose between the far right and the far left.

Ms. Le Pen seems to be playing her cards all too shrewdly. She has toned down her customary nationalistic opposition to the euro, which has never gone over with most French people. Instead, she is emphasizing "civilization" in a way that implies that Islam and Muslim immigrants aren't civilized.

In her view, the mobility provided by the border-free Schengen zone in much of Europe is not a good thing – suggesting that it makes life too easy for immigrants to settle in Europe. "The French want to live in France like Frenchmen," she says – implying that the French have one definite culture that all French people recognize as such.

If Mr. Macron gets to the second round, polls say he would crush Ms. Le Pen. But first, he has to survive Sunday.

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