May 28, 2024

A Test Run for 2027?

William Bouchardon

How French voters turn out in the European elections next month could have major domestic implications

Do the French care about the European elections? Thus far, the European electoral campaign has failed to stir up much popular enthusiasm. Of course, it is only just getting underway, and headlines have focused primarily on the new government and farmers’ protests in recent months.

The first televised debate, held on 14 March by TV channel Public Sénat, was a testament to this lack of interest: the public had to wait until less than three months before the elections for a second-tier public broadcaster to launch the campaign, and it was underwhelming to say the least. The frontrunner, Rassemblement national (RN) candidate and number two of Marine Le Pens’ Party Jordan Bardella, declined the invitation altogether, and none of the other candidates’ statements even made the headlines.

Will the French Go to the Polls?

This show of political apathy can be partially explained by the public’s general lack of awareness around the candidates, with the exception of Bardella. The leading candidate for the governing party Renaissance, Valérie Hayer, is largely unknown to the public, as are Marie Toussaint of the Greens and Léon Deffontaines of the French Communist Party. Those endorsed by La France Insoumise (Manon Aubry), the Socialist Party (Raphaël Glucksmann), and the Republicans (François-Xavier Bellamy), as well as Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s niece who re-joined Eric Zemmour’s party Reconquête, maintain only a secondary position in the French political field. Preliminary meetings illustrated as much: La France Insoumise brought back Jean-Luc Mélenchon — officially “inactive but not retired” — to launch their campaign, while Macron’s bloc is banking on its ministers to mobilize voters.

Election figures reflect the sluggishness of this campaign launch — as of March, only 44 percent of French people were certain that they would vote at all. However, a last-minute surge in interest cannot be ruled out. In 2019, the candidates were also largely unknown, and the campaign launch was delayed by the Yellow Vests movement. Nevertheless, half of all French citizens did end up voting, 8 percent more than in 2014. This increase may be due to the fact that it was the first election since 2017, giving the French people an opportunity to express their views on the early days of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. This time, however, with Macron having been re-elected by default against extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen and therefore unable to stand for re-election, this round of European elections will be the last on a national level before the next presidential election, the only vote in which the French continue to demonstrate a high level of interest and turnout.

All political players have understood this and intend to use the European elections as a full-scale survey on the state of the nation and a preliminary review of Macron’s time in office. After all, the electoral system lends itself to this. By offering a seat to all parties that obtain more than 5 percent of the vote, the resulting proportional representation encourages citizens to vote according to their party preference instead of making strategic votes based on the candidates’ chances of reaching the second round. After a poor showing in 2022, the left-wing Communist Party, the Greens, and the Socialists (PS) have now refused to continue the NUPES alliance, dominated by La France Insoumise, in hopes of rebalancing power dynamics in their favour. Similarly, the right-wing Republicans and far-right Reconquête are hoping to lure voters over from Renaissance and the RN.

Macron’s Decline

Since the last legislative elections in June 2022 — where Macron lost the absolute majority, tying with both the left (at the time united under the NUPES banner) and far-right blocs — France’s political landscape has undeniably changed. While the Left is once again divided between the social democratic camp and the more radical fringes, the rematch between the RN and Renaissance is expected this time to end in favour of the former. Surveys indicate a lead of at least ten points for Marine Le Pen’s RN over Macron’s Renaissance — roughly 30 percent against 20 percent.

The fear of defeat among Macron supporters appears to be well-founded. Since his re-election, Macron’s actions have only added to the hostility already directed at him, particularly from the centre-left. After pushing through pension reform legislation that was rejected by nine out of ten workers, he dedicated the last months of 2023 to an immigration law that echoed demands traditionally characterized as far-right. Macron anticipated that this reform would take votes away from the Right and far right, but in the end, it backfired. Republicans were able to take advantage of their pivotal role at the National Assembly and their majority in the Senate to push forward even more extreme measures — including abolishing processes of legalisation and State medical aid for undocumented workers, implementing immigration quotas, limiting family reunification, and so on — thereby keeping their voter base happy. Since then, the government has turned its focus towards budget cuts: 10 billion euro in austerity measures were announced in February, and even more are expected after the European elections.

In order to distract from these unpopular moves, the presidential team has reverted to its old tactic of demonizing opponents. By highlighting the Republicans’ flip-flopping on key issues, Macron supporters are trying to render immoral any vote for the Left. By accusing them of yielding to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s “outbursts”, they therefore put LFI in the same boat as the historically anti-Republican Rassemblement National. The cordon sanitaire supposedly erected by Macron’s camp to protect the French republic against far right encroachment appears to be crumbling. In fact, the overlap between the RN and Renaissance on several major issues, from a refusal to raise the minimum wage to laws on national security and immigration, indicates an ideological alignment around an authoritarian and antisocial agenda.

Furthermore, in order to re-engage his older, wealthy voter base, and to distinguish his party from the RN, the President wants to turn the European elections into a referendum on support for Ukraine. This is the thrust of his military statements regarding aid for Kyiv, going so far as to allude to sending in ground troops. This suggestion was immediately rejected by France’s allies (Germany, Italy, USA, Spain, UK), as it would have meant a nuclear-armed NATO member going to war.

While it seems that Macron is playing with fire, he does so purely for his own political advantage at home. By provoking opposing parties, who have all criticized his verbal outbursts, he is hoping to present them as soft in their support for Ukraine, or even as covert supporters of Vladimir Putin. This particular scenario was played out during the parliamentary debate on the security agreement between Paris and Kyiv, which foresees Ukraine’s future entry into the EU and NATO, enhanced military and civilian cooperation, and financial assistance to the tune of 3 billion euro in 2024.

The RN Makes Amends with the EU

Macron’s political stunt was rather successful, as the dissenting votes of La France Insoumise and PCF enabled the government to denounce them as enemies of the state. As for the RN, their abstention betrayed a lack of clarity on the issue — until the war broke out in 2022, the party had made little effort to conceal its ideological proximity to Putin’s authoritarian conservatism. Financial records confirm this affinity: in 2014, the far-right party received two loans from Russian banks, totalling 11 million euro. In return, the RN endorsed the annexation of Crimea and organised a series of meetings with Russian officials, including one between Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin in March 2017.

A long-standing admirer of the Russian dictator, Marine Le Pen has been forced to pay lip service to the defence of Ukraine since 2022. While she has criticized the inefficacy of economic sanctions against Moscow and the instrumentalization of the conflict for political gain, her actual proposals remain vague. This undecipherable position is also reflected in the RN’s hesitancy in the European Parliament. Will its elected representatives remain in the Identity and Democracy (ID) group, or will they join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)? The two far-right groups differ on two key subjects: foreign policy and willingness to enter into alliance with the traditional right. The ID group, which includes very right-wing and pro-Russian parties such as the German Alternative für Deutschland and Matteo Salvini’s Lega, is subject to a cordon sanitaire that isolates them from other MEPs. By contrast, the ECR group is made up of the ultra-conservatives of Poland’s PiS, the Fratelli d’Italia and Vox, who are very Atlanticist and more willing to form alliances with the right-wing European People’s Party (EPP).

The RN’s membership in the ECR would be yet another indication of its desire to institutionalize, and the party’s softening of its stance on the European Union is one initial sign of this. Since 2022, there has been no more talk of dropping the euro or calling for an exit referendum, with the focus shifting to an à la carte “Europe of nations”, a strategy designed to reassure right-wing voters frightened by the idea of a “Frexit”. In terms of economic policies, the RN is working hard to reassure French businesses by voting against social measures proposed by the Left, parroting all the liberal clichés about public debt, and holding more and more meetings with large employers. Marine Le Pen has finally succeeded in expanding her circle of “Horaces”, a secret cabinet of empire-hungry senior civil servants, former ministerial advisers, and big business executives who supply her with briefings on topics as wide ranging as war on civilization to pleas for economic liberalism.

Towards a Right/Far-Right Union?

As a consequence of its desire to win over big business, the RN’s position has become unclear on a number of issues. In terms of agriculture, for example, the RN voted for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but then rejected the EU’s multi-annual budget, under which this policy would have been the biggest expenditure. Regarding the environment, Marine Le Pen’s criticisms against plant protection products were sacrificed in the name of agricultural productivity. Only the RN’s resolute opposition to free trade remained intact, while the party nonetheless courted multinational corporations.

Another indication of the RN’s image change was the recent recruitment of former head of EU border agency Frontex Fabrice Leggeri, which attracted extensive press coverage. A graduate of the École Normale Supérieure and École National d’Administration (ENA) and senior civil servant for the Ministry of the Interior, Leggeri’s image is put forward as a sign of integrity. However, when Leggeri was in charge of Frontex, the RN called for the agency’s abolishment, calling it an “a proxy for people smugglers”.

Judging by the polls, the RN’s strategy seems to be working. The party has been able to maintain its base of dissatisfied anti-establishment voters while drawing in other demographics, in particular from more affluent households. Having never governed beyond the municipal level, the RN benefits from a steady supply of protest votes, to which it intends to add its traditional right-wing voter base. While this hybrid between working-class voters and a more highly educated, affluent electorate seems questionable, the RN actually seeks to unite these two sectors of society by developing a narrative aimed at blaming immigrants for the negative impacts of neoliberal reforms, and by playing on their shared resentments of the social welfare system.

While the RN is trying to lure voters of a more “institutional” Right over, latter is doing the exact opposite. The Republicans have become increasingly hostile and outspoken against immigration: after severely tightening French law, they are calling for a referendum on the topic and have voted with the far right in Brussels against the “asylum and immigration” pact, which calls for the distribution of migrants among Member States in order to lessen the impact on point-of-entry countries such as Italy. The Republicans also denounce the European “Green Deal” — which they accuse of orchestrating agricultural “degrowth” — and oppose a new term of office for Ursula Von der Leyen, even though they themselves belong to her political grouping, which currently holds the majority in the European Parliament.

These views are close to those of Reconquête, Eric Zemmour’s far-right party, which is fighting for its political survival. With the ID and ECR groups set to grow considerably, an alliance between the far right and the EPP no longer seems impossible. Such a coalition would mirror those already in place in several European countries, and could encourage the RN, the Republicans and Reconquête to collaborate more also on a national level. While this scenario remains hypothetical, any ideological barriers preventing these parties from cooperating have already dissolved.

A Short-Lived Union on the Left

While a bloc made up of the hard right and far right takes shape, the French Left finds itself once again divided. The surge of enthusiasm to unite under the banner of the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES) during the 2022 legislative elections did not last long.

It is important to keep in mind that the NUPES alliance was primarily motivated by electoral considerations. With abstention rates rising between the presidential and legislative elections, the Left feared they would once again have to support Macron-aligned candidates in order to oppose the RN. To prevent this from happening, Jean-Luc Mélenchon — who had recently confirmed his own leadership, as well as that of La France Insoumise on the Left, pushed for the Greens, Communists and Socialists to form an alliance from the very first round. This was a difficult proposal to turn down, given the individual parties’ insufficient number of MPs to form groups at the National Assembly. By eliminating electoral competition on the Left, the NUPES alliance ultimately succeeded in electing 150 MPs, 75 of whom were from La France Insoumise.

In addition to the electoral alliance, NUPES also included a common electoral programme, largely inspired by that of La France Insoumise, who thereby confirmed the victory of their strategy over the more moderate line of the PS and the Greens. Their key measures included, for example, price freezing on essential goods, noncompliance with certain European laws, the establishment of a Sixth Republic, raising the minimum monthly wage to 1,500 euro, and environmental planning.

However, doubt was quickly cast on the sincerity of the ideological conversion among the leadership of these parties. It is true that, since the mandate of François Hollande, the PS has taken more left-wing stances, and their votes in the European Parliament have become closer to those of La France Insoumise, although fundamental differences persist, particularly around foreign policy and European integration. Moreover, the hostility of many left-wing figures towards Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the tendency of every party to prioritize its own survival quickly weakened the NUPES.

Additionally, after a series of controversies fuelled by the media, comments made by members of La France Insoumise about the Hamas attack on 7 October 2023 — speaking in terms of “war crimes” rather than “terrorism” — resulted in their three partners dissolving the alliance. In order to avoid this being seen as a defeat, LFI accused “the old Left” of insincerity. Meanwhile, LFI presented itself as the party that would unite the left, organizing forums with young people from other parties and welcoming a number of defectors to its side, such as Green MEP Damien Carême. The real effect of such political manoeuvres on left-wing votes, however, remains uncertain.

The Unbridgeable Divide

Beyond internal quarrels, certain divisions within the Left still seem to loom, and are likely to play an important role in the European elections.

On the international front, both the PCF and the LFI support leaving NATO and demand a policy of more general non-alignment, while the Greens and the PS staunchly defend their Atlanticist position. Although no party is calling for a “Frexit”, the Communist Party and La France Insoumise voice criticism for a Europe built around markets, and call for France to unilaterally disregard certain treaties. In support of “social Europe”, the Greens and Socialists stand firmly as Europhiles and federalists. The question of opening up the EU to Ukraine has reopened this old rift, which was already visible during the French European Constitution referendum of 2005. While the FI and the PCF denounced the unsustainable competition that Ukraine would pose for French workers in terms of agriculture and wages, the EELV and PS saw it as a matter of course, and as a way to counter Russia.

In fact, the PS campaign is focused almost exclusively on Ukraine. Obsessed with Russia and the “economy of war”, Raphaël Glucksmann wants to impose the narrative of a battle between democracy and dictatorship. This war-mongering discourse, similar to that of Macron, appeals to the media and has certainly contributed to the positive polls which place him third. Nevertheless, his reluctance to condemn Israel in the EP and his disinterest in the Palestinian cause could turn out to be obstacles to winning a more left-wing electorate.

In contrast, the LFI positions itself as the party of peace, advocating for negotiations, sanctions against Israel, and respect for international law. One personality truly who embodies this fight is French-Palestinian legal expert Rima Hassan, who occupies the seventh spot on FI’s electoral list. Targeted with false anti-Semitism charges, Hassan and LFI President Mathilde Panot were brought to court for being “terrorism apologists”. These accusations followed several instances of LFI conferences being banned at universities. Although Jean-Luc Mélenchon has called this a climate of “McCarthyism”, it has at any rate meant broad media attention for LFI, which it intends to leverage to mobilize and expand its voter base.

While the PS and the LFI are in direct opposition to each other regarding these two wars, the Greens’ position is not so clear. Demanding both a ceasefire in Gaza and massive armament in Ukraine, the EELV gives the impression that their convictions are easily swayed, and while they attained a significant portion of the vote five years ago (13.5 percent), their campaign today is floundering. For the time being, however, Marie Toussaint has gained particular attention for the “booty therapy” session she organized during the campaign launch, as well as using terms such as “social veto” or “poverphobia”. Lastly, the Communists are leading a campaign with few resources, largely focused on promoting nuclear power as a solution to climate change.

While nuclear technology is unlikely to mobilize voters, other topics do pique more interest. This is the case with free trade, brought back to centre stage by the agricultural crisis. While the farmers’ movement, broadly supported among the French public, is split between demands from the Right (criticism of taxes and regulations) and the left (advocacy for environmentally friendly farming), the entire movement is largely united against the threat of unfair foreign competition. Feeling uneasy about this, Macron supporters and Republicans, who voted for European free trade agreements with Chile, Kenya, and New Zealand, have since then opposed a similar agreement with Mercosur. The RN, PS, and EELV find themselves in a more complex position: while their elected representatives voted against these agreements, their groups in the European Parliament overwhelmingly approved them. Only the left group, to which La France Insoumise belongs, rejected it outright.

Beyond opposition to free trade, LFI is also trying to showcase its victories in Brussels: protection for “uberized” workers, a ban on electrical fishing, and a better oversight of multinationals. These advances credit the party’s decision to fill its ranks with personalities from the world of trade unions and associations, such as Manon Aubry (Oxfam), Leïla Chaibi (Génération Précaire), Marina Mesure (trade unionist), and Anthony Smith (labour inspector). In contrast, the EELV and especially the PS have reserved spots for individuals from the inner circle of the political establishment. This phenomenon can also be seen with Renaissance and LR, while the RN succeeded in drawing in a number of outsider personalities, such as Fabrice Leggeri or essayist Malika Sorel, a testament to their growing influence in French politics.

An Unprecedented Political Restructuring Lies Ahead

For Marine Le Pen’s party, this European election promises to be a landmark moment, as a solid result would make their prospects for a victory in 2027 all the more plausible. This outcome seems more and more likely as the “Republican wall” crumbles and more promises are made to France’s ruling class.

Faced with this threat, the other two major political camps still have no clear strategy. In the president’s camp, the expected crushing defeat should intensify the conflict already playing out among those next in line to replace Macron. Gabriel Attal, Bruno Le Maire, Edouard Philippe, Gérald Darmanin, and other prominent Macron supporters are likely already preparing for what will come next, with a whole line of podium speeches and shock statements to unite and rally the bourgeois bloc in support of their candidacy.

On the Left, a breakthrough by Raphaël Glucksmann would help to restore a social democracy that has, since the disastrous experience of the Hollande administration, retreated to its local strongholds. Of course, Emmanuel Macron’s shift rightwards offers a certain opportunity to rebuild the “left of Delors and Badinter” to which the PS candidate claims to belong — a Left made of “happy globalization”, Europhilia, and social progressivism.

However, recent events call for caution. After achieving a good amount of support (13.5 percent) in the European elections in 2019, and then winning the mayoral elections of several French cities in 2020, the Greens were expecting to make a breakthrough during the 2022 presidential elections. In the end, they received less than 5 percent of the vote in a setback that La France Insoumise will be sure to remember if Glucksmann ends up performing well. In any case, the vote on 9 June is unlikely to resolve any internal disputes in the French Left, or bring about the emergence of a natural leader.

Be that as it may, taking European elections as a gauge for new political trends, as broadcasters are bound to do, is a very risky move. The European voting system encourages a wide spectrum of votes, while French presidential elections do not: they instead narrow candidates down to reach a two-party runoff. High levels of abstention at the European elections also make them a very bad indicator of voting trends to come, especially considering the levels of abstention among the youth, the poor and the least educated, who tend to vote for LFI and the RN. Nevertheless, if the RN’s lead over Renaissance is confirmed, it will sound a major alarm for the 2027 election, where Marine Le Pen will be waiting with an even larger share of the vote.

About the author: William Bouchardon is economics editor at Le Vent Se Leve, an independent online magazine in France.

Top photo: AP Photo/Thomas Padilla

This article was first published on May 21, 2024 at