Less than two weeks before the crucial French run-off election between President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, Le Pen revealed on Tuesday that if she wins the presidency on April 24, she would not block a Brexit-style referendum on whether France should pull out of the European Union—a decision that would radically reshape Europe, with dramatic ramifications across the world.
TIME asked her to comment on an issue she had raised in 2017 that was part of her failed presidential bid against Macron.
“In the case of a referendum that is against the fundamental interests of the country, the president and the National Assembly can oppose it, but that is not the case with an exit from the E.U.,” Le Pen said, on whether a Frexit referendum would be possible under her presidency. The comment was made during a meeting of journalists. She was also making the stop at Vernon, a well-to-do commuter community, about an hour west from Paris. “The French can reassess their presence on whichever international organizations they choose,” she said.
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In 2017, Le Pen, a hardline nationalist, campaigned for a so-called “Frexit,” arguing that France was suffocating under decisions made at E.U. headquarters was in Brussels. It needed to separate from the bloc with 27 members. Even Le Pen’s office in the E.U. Parliament in Brussels—of which she was then an elected member—featured posters calling for Frexit, with hands breaking free from chains.
This time, Le Pen has not pushed to pull France out of the E.U.—part of her effort to align more closely with French voters. According to opinion polls, most French support the E.U. IFOP conducted a survey in February and found that approximately 63% of French would vote for a referendum.
“Frexit is off the agenda,” a regional politician for Le Pen’s National Rally party told TIME last week, speaking anonymously, saying that Le Pen’s strategy as president would be instead to weaken the E.U., by aligning with other nationalist leaders, like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a close ally of hers, who won his fourth term in office earlier this month. “There are so many other countries with likewise views in the E.U. We believe we can reform the E.U., Parliament. from within,” the politician said.
Some analysts believe that this would have an impact on NATO and the E.U. France is an important member of these institutions. Macron, as French president, is the current rotating member of the E.U., representing the country with Europe’s largest military force—at a time of war.
Martin Quencez, deputy director in Paris for the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., told TIME on Tuesday that Le Pen’s campaign platform suggests she would override E.U. decisions she does not believe in, or that run counter to her believes, such as imposing tight border controls around France, and giving French citizens preference in labor markets; both those violate the E.U.’s core principles. “It is hard to see how this would not lead to France pulling out of the E.U,” Quencez says. “There are opt-outs on every situation, to not implement E.U. decisions if it is against France’s interests.”
Le Pen told journalists on Tuesday that she favored a “referendum revolution,” in which French citizens could organize a popular vote on many different issues. It would mark a major departure from previous decades where a French president had set the key policy direction for France’s defense, economy and security. Since the French president hand-picks France’s Prime Minister, too, many political decisions emanate from the Elysée Palace—including France’s status in Europe and NATO.
Le Pen’s push for a weaker Europe is starkly at odds with Macron, who has defined his leadership on the basis of more E.U. power—including the need for a European defense force, in order to cut its reliance on U.S. military power. On Tuesday, Macron released a campaign document laying out 10 reasons for French voters to choose him over Le Pen, including “for a strong France within an independent Europe.”
This has been made more urgent by Macron’s portrayal of himself as a wartime President, frequently in discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin. By contrast, Le Pen’s 2017 campaign was financed in part with a loan from a Russian bank, and shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, she pulped a million campaign leaflets showing her shaking hands in Moscow with Putin.
On Tuesday, as a small crowd of protesters and admirers gathered outside the small hotel in the town of Vernon, where Le Pen met journalists, two residents unfurled a handwritten banner, saying ‘Marine Putin!” a chant picked up by some in the crowd.
“Ukraine is very important to us,” said Antoine Richard, 20, one of the two holding the sign. “If Marine Le Pen had won in 2017, I guess we would be participating in the crimes of Mr. Putin right now,” he said.
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