French vote will decide fate of Europe’s rampart against far-right

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European parliament elections are a collection of national contests. They often matter more domestically than they do in Brussels or Strasbourg, given the diffuse nature of power and decision-making in the EU.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron proved the point in spectacular fashion on Sunday night, stunning his country and the rest of Europe when he announced snap elections for the National Assembly in just three weeks’ time, with a second round vote on July 7.

Macron was responding to the resounding victory of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National in Sunday’s European parliament poll. The RN won some 33 per cent of the vote, more than double Macron’s centrist alliance. By calling fresh national elections, Macron looks like he wants to block Le Pen’s path to the presidency in 2027, forcing the French people to decide whether they really want the RN in power.

The outcome of that French vote might matter more for the future direction of the EU than the results of the European parliament vote on Sunday.

The outcome of those shifted the dial of EU politics to the right, but not in a decisive way. Populist and far-right MEPs will probably make up just short of a quarter of the parliament. That is a considerable jump from the 5 per cent or so they won 15 years ago. But they are not taking over the assembly, let alone the EU. They are split between two main groups and several unattached parties.

The dream of a Eurosceptic super-group that could rival the centre-right and centre-left blocs, the parliament’s power brokers, remains just that. Indeed, the far-right could split into three groups: hardline radicals like Alternative for Germany, governing pragmatists led by Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, and hard-right Eurosceptics such as Le Pen.

For decades, the European parliament operated through a grand coalition of centre-left and centre-right. In 2024, a majority stretching from the centre-right and far-right may be theoretically possible for the first time. But it is unlikely to be formalised. The centre-right has ruled out working with the likes of Le Pen, let alone the AfD. But it has shifted its so-called cordon sanitaire to allow for co-operation with Meloni, who has so far worked with Brussels rather than confront it. That could mean a more conservative parliament on issues such as climate change and immigration.

The cordon sanitaire has been crumbling across Europe for some time. By the end of this year, ten of the EU’s 27 member states, including France, could be governed by coalitions that include or are supported by populist or far-right parties. Mostly, it is a case of conservatives finding some common cause with the hard-right.

Macron, on the other hand, is not so much stretching the cordon sanitaire as potentially snapping it altogether — ironic for a leader who shaped his political identity as the pro-European politician who could stop the far-right’s rise.

Snap elections could install Le Pen, a radical Eurosceptic with a protectionist and nationalist agenda at odds with EU membership, in the prime minister’s office within weeks. The president would be forced to share power in a humiliating and probably tumultuous cohabitation with his nemesis.

The RN is already the biggest opposition party in the National Assembly. It has a formidable campaign machine and now electoral momentum after Sunday’s crushing victory.

Macron may calculate that things may only get worse for his centrist alliance. Its stunning defeat this weekend — a hitherto resilient 20-25 per cent core electorate is disintegrating — is likely to stir a war of succession among those of his supporters with presidential ambitions. His Renaissance party has had no parliamentary majority for two years and retains little prospect of forming a coalition under current conditions. The prospect of an imminent RN victory could instead encourage other parties to strike electoral alliances.

Macron may be hoping that, as in the last two presidential elections, when presented with the choice of installing the RN in office, French voters will once again balk. He may be calculating that if the RN did win a snap poll, it would prove so chaotic in government that it would puncture the aura of inevitability around a Le Pen victory in 2027.

Macron could argue that in France’s vertical political system, where the president holds most of the power, an RN government would not do much damage to the country or to the EU. To many people in France and elsewhere in the EU, it looks like a desperate throw of the dice.

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