Far Right Gains in European Parliament Projections; France’s Macron Calls Snap Elections

REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
French President Emmanuel Macron appears on a screen as he delivers a speech following results after the polls closed in the European Parliament elections, in Paris, France, June 9, 2024.

BRUSSELS – Early forecasts in the European Parliament elections on Sunday showed voters punishing ruling centrists and throwing unprecedented support behind far-right parties, most notably in France, where disastrous results for French President Emmanuel Macron’s coalition prompted him to dissolve the National Assembly and call snap elections.

Although a combination of centrist, pro-European parties was projected to maintain a majority in the European Parliament, Macron acknowledged that those parties had taken a disproportionate hit. He said legislative elections, with a first round set for June 30, would give French citizens a chance to determine their country’s future. The French presidency won’t be contested, but the vote will be a referendum on Macron’s government.

The once-every-five-years European Parliament elections are the world’s largest democratic exercise outside India. Citizens of the European Union’s 27 member states cast ballots to determine the 720 representatives that sit in Brussels and Strasbourg. Since the last elections in 2019, once-fringe hard right parties have moved into the political mainstream in Europe, and the results seemed to reflect those shifts.

In Germany, while the center right was leading comfortably on Sunday, there was boisterous flag waving at Alternative for Germany headquarters after an exit poll determined the far-right party to be the “second strongest force.” Austria’s far-right Freedom Party also celebrated on Sunday after forecasts showed it placing first for the first time.

Early projections on Sunday suggested that France’s National Rally, a far-right party guided by Marine Le Pen and her protégé Jordan Bardella, won about 31.5 percent of the vote, more than doubling the showing from Macron’s allies. “The unprecedented gap reflects a scathing disavowal and rejection of the policy led by Emmanuel Macron,” Bardella said.

Dissolving the National Assembly is a way for Macron to show he has heard the criticism. He may be betting that protest votes featured prominently in elections for the relatively weak European Parliament and that people may vote differently when focused on France.

It’s an “extremely risky” strategy, said Michael Duclos, a former French diplomat now at the Institut Montaigne think tank. “There is a strong chance that the National Rally will win … in a landslide and therefore be able to form the next government,” with Bardella as the likely prime minister, Duclos said.

This is what’s known as “cohabitation” in France, when the president and the prime minister come from opposing parties – a situation critics say leads to political paralysis. Duclos said Macron may hope being in power would make Bardella “unpopular.” But even then, another far-right figure, most likely Le Pen, could win the presidency in 2027, he said, breaking a long-held taboo in France around far-right governments.

Sunday’s far-right surge was also a massive blow for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Two broadcaster exit polls in Germany estimated that the AfD had won 16 percent of the vote, compared to 11 percent last time. That’s despite recent scandals that could have softened support. Meanwhile, Scholz’s Social Democrats saw big losses, according to the polls, as did the Green Party that is part of his governing coalition.

And a Dutch exit poll released Thursday indicated that Geert Wilders’s hard-right Party for Freedom had made the biggest gains in the Netherlands, winning seven seats.

Although we won’t know the final European Parliament tally until Monday, forecasts and partial results were being released into the night on Sunday.

The elections come at a moment when many E.U. countries are pushing for the kind of closer cooperation and integration that guided a coordinated response to the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while a vocal chorus of conservative, nationalist figures are pushing back, wary of what they cast as overreach.

Economic issues are at the forefront for voters across the bloc, according to the most recent Eurobarometer survey. Compared to past years, however, the need to take action against climate change appeared less dominant, reflecting a backlash in some countries to the high costs of green policies. Migration remained a top 10 issue regionally, but ranked of outsize importance in countries such as Germany and Austria.

The European Parliament is limited in power, and the rising far-right parties are fragmented, but if they can agree to work together, they could influence the bloc’s position on major issues for years to come – cementing the E.U.’s increasingly restrictive approach to migration, frustrating efforts to meet climate goals and weakening support for Ukraine.

The final election results, once they are in, will not be the last word, but the beginning of weeks, or even months, of negotiation as the representatives form political groups and officials vie for the union’s top jobs.

A key question is whether European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will get another five-year term leading the E.U.’s executive. After the last elections, in 2019, she secured parliament’s approval by nine votes – and many wonder if it could be closer this time.

In the past, harder right parties were taking votes away from center-right parties, but these days, they are also making inroads with electorates who once voted more to the left. “The far-right has siphoned off voters, certainly in France, Germany and Italy, and some Scandinavian countries, who would have historically voted for left parties,” said Catherine Fieschi, a political analyst and fellow at the Robert Schuman Center of the European University Institute in Florence. “Part of the story of the right is the failure of the left in some of these countries.”

A big unknown is the extent to which Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni will cooperate with France’s Le Pen, whose National Rally shares Meloni’s hard line views on immigration and some social issues, but is far more eurosceptic and deeply wary of additional E.U. support for Ukraine.

Le Pen, in turn, has tried to distance herself from those further to the right, including Germany’s hard-line euroskeptic and anti-immigration AfD.

Ahead of the European Parliament elections, the AfD’s lead candidate, Maximilian Krah, was banned from campaigning after suggesting that not all of Nazi Germany’s SS officers should be considered criminals.

At an AfD rally about 17 miles north of Berlin last week, there were calls for the expulsion of migrants and slogans like “Our homeland, our rules.” One person carried a sign with a censored version of the phrase “Everything for Germany” – a banned Nazi slogan that recently got an AfD politician fined roughly $14,000.

In the weeks ahead, analysts will be watching to see if the AfD can inch its way into a far-right coalition of some sort, or whether it will remain on the fringes.

“Central to the question ‘how powerful will the [far right] become?’ said Bettina Kohlrausch, director of the Dusseldorf-based Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI), “Is the question ‘Are the conservative parties distancing themselves or not?’”