Far-right trouble in France and Germany

The European elections deliver gains to an emboldened, yet fractious far-right motley of Eurosceptic, anti-immigration xenophobes, and Russia-friendly parties. MATTHEW VELLA reports

In France, the gains of the far-right have led to the gamble of the year: French President Emmanuel Macron is going for broke by calling for a snap election against his nemesis, Marine Le Pen.

It is one of the boldest moves ever for the liberal, centrist president whose policies have angered many in France and have failed to slow down the advance of Le Pen’s National Rally (RN), the successor to the Front National.

Le Pen may be expected to even win these parliamentary elections, a situation that would lead to a far-right parliament under the Macron presidency. Macron may seem to be betting that this would pave the way for Le Pen to once again lose the presidency in 2027 – which he is not contesting, after winning the presidency twice.

RN got 31.4% of the vote in the European election, getting 30 out of 81 French MEPs. Macron’s party Renaissance, part of the Ensemble coalition, gained 13 seats with just under 15% of the vote. It was a resounding victory for Le Pen’s anti-migration party.

What happens if the RN wins the forthcoming French elections?

It would possibly see RN’s 28-year-old Jordan Bardella being offered – perhaps – to act as Macron’s prime minister if they win a majority in parliament (Bardella is actually an MEP). The gamble for Macron is to throw Le Pen’s party right into the heart of government, hoping it will lose steam under pressures of governing, with Le Pen having to carry any failures right into the 2027 presidential race against her future challenger.

By that time, once again Macron will hope that France’s centrist, democrat and progressive forces will pull together to prevent Le Pen from entering the Élysée.

It is a situation that has long been playing out in France: In 2002 it was Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen who edged into the run-off against Jacques Chirac; the centre-right president was accorded 82% of the vote by an electorate that included left-wing voters putting a peg on their nose to keep Le Pen out.

In 2017, Le Pen’s daughter faced Macron in their first encounter, losing by 34% to 66.1%; in 2022, Le Pen’s vote increased to 41.4% while Macron’s fell to 58.6%... what would happen in a new presidential race where Le Pen’s party is however tried and tested in power?

As in Malta, Brussels is seen as a distant entity whose legislation does not immediately impact upon short-term interests, so the European election is usually where the protest vote is expressed most strongly. But the French legislative election is a two-round vote – being held soon on 30 June and 7 July – which historically has favoured, again just as in Malta, the traditional parties. This mainstream rallying is what allowed Macron to beat Le Pen twice in the last presidential elections.

Macron knows that in the snap election, the RN will win more seats but not enough to govern – far-right candidates will find it hard to either win 50% in the first round or a run-off. But it’s unclear which voters will be mobilised in this snap election. Usually, new presidents find it easier to mobilise a strong majority in the parliamentary elections. And in December 2023, a leaked poll from centre-right Les Républicains showed that the RN could possibly elect over 250 lawmakers – they currently have 88 in the 577-seat assembly – a situation that could force Macron to nominate a National Rally prime minister, who would be in charge of the setting the government’s policies.

Macron’s daring move now needs him to mobilise supporters against the far-right threat – the question is, will this rallying cry work today?

Even inside the centre-right conservatives Les Republicains, not all is right: their own president Éric Ciotti was expelled this week for attempting to seal a deal with Le Pen’s RL, in secret, for the upcoming elections.

Trouble in Germany

Outside of Le Pen’s pan-European ID group, lies the other far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), celebrating a “historic” second place finish, ahead of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD).

For the EU, any of its two behemoths landing in the hands of the far-right is a nightmare scenario. Le Pen’s RN party has softened edges when compared to the sharp corners of her father’s FN. But while Marine certainly is no longer a proponent for exiting the EU after the Brexit experience, her party has abstained on aid to Ukraine in the war against Russia, wants to leave NATO’s integrated command, and opposes many of the EU’s globalist ambitions, which would mean dead-legging many of the larger legislative packages on climate for example.

While Macron responded to defeat with a snap election, Scholz has been absent in explaining the SPD’s defeat. There is no early election planned, but calls for new elections for the German ruling coalition are being made clearly in the German press: with just 31% of Germany voters supporting one of the three parties – the SPD, the Greens, and the Free Democrat Party – in Germany’s coalition even amid record voter turnout.

Added to Scholz’s headaches is the infighting and problems afflicting his governments, now officially one of the most unpopular government in modern German history, with over two-thirds of Germans expressing dissatisfaction with the coalition: Scholz was aiming to shift German’s heating systems from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but the country’s high court ruled the budget unconstitutional, denying him billions in cash needed to fund the government’s plans. It exposed a rift between the SPD-Greens and the fiscally conservative FDP finance minister Christian Lindner, who wants to uphold Germany’s dislike of debt. This fractious relationship might see a new crescendo when the coalition concludes talks on the 2025 budget.

The result for Scholz has been devastating: his personal approval rating has also set a negative record, with over 70% of Germans dissatisfied with him.

Macron’s gamble

While there seems to be little logic in calling an election now that he has been humiliated by the far-right, Macron is intent on taking on the inevitable rise of the far-right, head-on – and this with only weeks to go for the Olympic Games in Paris, and the resulting plunge of the stock market. Dangerous game or high-stakes poker?

The prospect is that Macron prefers running the far-right to the ground while he can ‘control’ it, then allowing the party of protest a free pass to clinch the presidency in 2027. Macron, who has to leave office in 2027, can use his presidential power to waste Le Pen’s energy, with the RN burdened with the onerous responsibilities of government, having to deal with deficits and polarised voters, managing immigration and high crime rates.

Far-right influence, in both the European Parliament and member states, is a sign of growing uneasiness with the green transition inside the ambitious EU and its laws aimed at achieving carbon neutrality.

Communities outside the big cities have become ripe constituents for far-right clarion calls, like Le Pen’s, which constantly denounce the coming end of “the painful globalist parenthesis that has made so many people suffer in the world.” That’s not to say that Le Pen’s is not a mature call: mainstream pro-European parties won about 60% of the vote in the European Parliament election, and tensions between far-right parties can yet derail any concrete bloc influence.

As an example of what is happening in France, Macron is seeking a united Europe that pools its military-industrial resources to counter the Russian threat; but Le Pen prefers wants border control, reverse Green Deal policies that have created costly green transition measures, and reduce in immigration.

Macron has seen the writing on the wall – his unpopular administration is struggling and instead of trudging to the end and pave the way for Le Pen, he hopes to rise to the challenge – much as Charles de Gaulle did when he dissolved Parliament in 1968 after civil unrest of that famous May, with the French choosing order and a strengthened De Gaulle.

It is unclear whether Macron will however find support from the centre-right Republicains or the miffed left coalition, which includes Jean-Luc Melenchon’s communists La France Insoumise, as well as socialists and greens. Macron’s aloofness and highly centralised style of administration has angered many; he faced fierce protests after raising pensionable age from 62 to 64; and now plans over €18 billion in budget cuts to rein in rising debt.

His last weapon has been to call a snap election in the hope that it disorients his opponents, allowing the chaos to leave a large cloud of dust that disperses all pretenders to the throne. But the jury is certainly out on whether he is master of his own destiny, or that of France.

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This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The action was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant programme in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information or opinions expressed in the context of this action. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or programme broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the action.

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