France: the most important EU parliament election “by far”, right?
The European Parliament elections are taking place this week, allowing voters from the European Union’s (EU) 28 member states to participate in choosing the 751 members of the only directly elected EU institution. The European Parliament establishes budgets, approves or rejects legislation, and is central in electing the President of the European Commission. With the rising popularity of nationalist and Eurosceptic groups along with the shadows of a looming Brexit, this ninth election cycle could be one of the most important since the first elections in 1979. The results of the election will help shape policy in Brussels for the next five years and will undoubtedly have spillover effects on the domestic politics of many EU member states.
The stakes are particularly high in France, where no other than former US President Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon declaring that France’s election was "by far" most important of all the European parliament polls in EU member states. Leading in the polls are French President Emmanuel Macron’s party La Republique En Marche (LREM) and the far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) headed by Marine Le Pen. Polling at 22.54% (LREM) and 23.46% (RN) the two parties are neck and neck, and what follows the elections on May 26th could have powerful implications for both France and Europe at large.
The two parties offer radically different visions for the future of the Europe. Among others, the pro-Europe LREM’s programme includes creating a European Climate Bank to promote green investment, imposing a GAFA tax, moving towards creating a European army and expanding the popular Erasmus student exchange programme. The Eurosceptic RN programme, while not calling for an end to the European project outright, include measures that would greatly undermine it, including ending the Common Agricultural Policy, cancelling all French taxes contributing to the European Union budget, and reinstating border controls.
Observant readers will remember that France’s presidential elections saw the leaders of the two parties challenging each other for France’s top leadership position. Indeed, the European Parliament elections may be seen as demonstrating a new political environment in France, in which traditional left- and right-wing parties have crumbled to pieces (a record number of 34 groups have presented lists in this year’s elections), and the main political dichotomy is centrist vs. extreme right (or left – at 8.57%, the extreme left party La France Insoumise has maintained a presence in the political arena, albeit not enough to pose a serious threat to LREM or RN). And there is no doubt that both parties are campaigning with the next French presidential elections in 2022 already in mind. Many see the European Parliament elections serving as a litmus test on French public opinion of Emmanuel Macron following two rocky years in power. This includes Marine Le Pen, who has declared the European Parliament elections a “referendum” on the legitimacy of Emmanuel Macron and his vision of Europe. After strong election performance in the 2014 European Parliament elections (in which the Front National - now RN - won 24.86% of the popular vote) but a 2017 French presidential election failure, she is positioning herself as the leading opposition leader to Emmanuel Macron.
The battle between the LREM against the RN hasn’t escaped international attention. With nationalist political parties gaining power in recent elections in several European countries (i.e. Italy, Austria, Hungary) the election of unabashedly pro-Europe Emmanuel Macron seemed to at least interrupt the trend of a rising Eurosceptic presence in Europe. As leader of one of the founding countries of the European Union, Emmanuel Macron has positioned himself both domestically and abroad as a champion against rising right-wing populist movements in the EU. However, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel due to leave her position by 2021, his voice may be an increasingly lonely one. Should the LREM come second behind the RN, he may find it difficult to advance his agenda for Europe. This may be the reason why former executive chairman of Breitbart News Steve Bannon, who launched The Movement, a “club” to support right-wing populist parties in Europe after serving as strategist to US president Donald Trump, decided it opportune to visit Paris a few weeks ago to offer his support to Marine Le Pen. Speaking to the Le Parisien newspaper, Bannon spoke of the importance of opposing Emmanuel Macron’s “globalist vision” for deeper integration and federalisation of EU member states. Emmanuel Macron and the LREM have not hesitated to draw attention to foreign influences supporting the RN, calling it a “Trojan Horse” of Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin seeking to “destroy” the European Union (unable to obtain loans from French banks, the RN had obtained a 9 million euro loan from a private Russian bank in 2014).
However, while the political drama continues to heat up as the election approaches, it is not clear to what extent French voters are truly concerned. Voter turnout for May 26th is expected to be historically low, at around 42%, with young people (18-25) particularly absent: their turnout is predicted as low as 23%. Furthermore, despite a few Gilet Jaune-created parties on the ballot list, it seems unlikely that they will represent a major force in the European parliament elections given their focus on domestic concerns and aversion to organized politics. That being said, should the RN come before the LREM in the European parliament elections, it could revive social tensions by reinforcing the claim of many Gilet Jaunes that Emmanuel Macron does not represent the popular vote in his country. Whatever the results of May 26th, it is unlikely that the summer will represent much of a holiday for the president of France.
Hilary Norris, Business Development
Sources linked in the article