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[LONDON] UK Prime Minister Theresa May will face a "pretty tough" time in Brexit negotiations if Emmanuel Macron meets expectations and secures the French presidency next month.
That was the 39-year-old candidate's pledge in February when he promised to make sure Britain doesn't win too many concessions in its split from the bloc in order to protect the integrity of the rest of the European Union.
Now the French politician may get a chance to turn his words into action. He won the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday and secured a raft of endorsements from defeated rivals ahead of the final ballot on May 7. Pollsters project he'll beat his opponent, far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, by at least 20 percentage points.
"Macron won't diverge from the EU's position,'' said Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe network of academics. "He doesn't share some of the UK critique of the EU as some others do. You'll get none of that from Macron.''
Mr Macron was the most pro-European of all the main candidates in the French election. On a trip to London in February, he said that he would seek a "fair execution" of Brexit and would not allow Ms May to secure any "undue advantages." He's also been touting for business among companies and institutions weighing up their options as Britain leaves the EU. He has said he would try to coax "banks, talent, researchers, academics" to move to France from the UK and suggested he would seek to revise the Le Touquet agreement which allows each country to host the other's border controls.
Ms Le Pen's success in the first round, securing almost a quarter of the vote, is an added incentive for Mr Macron to play hardball, said Carsten Nickel of Teneo Intelligence. The strength of euro-skepticism means the next president "can't let the UK get away with a benign deal'' in case French voters start to eye the door too, he said.
Matthew Elliott, a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and one of the leaders of the campaign for the UK to leave the EU, said a Macron win was still actually a better result than the alternative. It would create "greater political stability, making the Brexit negotiations less complex," he said. A victory for Ms Le Pen "would be a bigger crisis for the EU than Brexit,'' he said.
Mr Elliott said the likelihood of negotiations taking place amid relative stability will be further strengthened if German Chancellor Angela Merkel secures re-election in September. Ms Merkel said on Sunday that EU leaders should negotiate "positively," yet preserve the "advantages of the single market for ourselves."
A shock victory for Ms Le Pen would increase the risk of Britain leaving without any exit deal at all, as the EU would suddenly be forced to focus on a bigger threat to its future, Mr Menon said.
"The UK would be less of a priority,'' he said. "It would be even more necessary for the EU to prevent a situation in which Brexit looked like a good model for Frexit.''