Battered by far right, France’s Macron bets big on risky snap election

BRUSSELS — The far right made a play for Europe’s political center. In France, it got pretty close.

In European Parliament elections Sunday night, the French far right clobbered the ruling centrist coalition, so much so that French President Emmanuel Macron called for snap legislative elections. He seems to be betting that voters were angry at him and not truly enamored with Marine Le Pen’s brand of nationalist, anti-immigration politics. It’s a bet he may lose.

The morning after the once-every-five-years European elections, a strong showing from far-right parties in France, Germany and Italy has rattled the European Union’s political establishment and heralded a new era in which once-fringe figures will play a bigger role.

The results underscored the extraordinary transformation of the European far-right from groups once dismissed as skinheads and neo-Nazis to politically palatable figures who have connected with more and more voters.

Pro-European parties are still projected to win a majority of seats in the European Parliament, but hard-right parties performed well, claiming the largest share of seats in both France and Italy and placing second in Germany, tilting the E.U.’s center of gravity rightward.


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The Greens, whose success in 2019 was seen as proof of a new level of public awareness of the dire need to fight climate change, suffered setbacks — the latest sign that a green backlash may be underway.

Though divisions within the far right may blunt its impact in the European Parliament, the surge will be sharply felt sharply in capitals, boosting the clout of leaders such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and her allies at the expense of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Macron.

The night’s most obvious winner was 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, the Le Pen protégé who led National Rally to a projected 31.5 percent of the vote, more than doubling the showing of the Macron coalition. If voters also decide to stick with the party in the French elections, now set for June 30 and July 7, he could become prime minister.

Bardella, like Le Pen, is a nationalist Euroskeptic and takes a hard line on immigration. In recent years, his soaring popularity, particularly among young people, has helped move Le Pen’s movement toward the political mainstream.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group consultancy, said Macron is trying to get ahead of the challenge by pushing “a stark choice” on the country: the status quo or a far-right prime minister. The French president may be hoping that his same warnings will mobilize more voters in a national election and that structural differences in the election — higher turnout, two rounds of voting — will play to his advantage.

“Is that a shrewd calculation or a mad gamble? It’s probably a bit of both,” Rahman said. Even if Macron averts a worst-case scenario but Le Pen makes big gains, he could be left with a “more ungovernable mess,” and “that’s still a major storm” he would to contend with.

The possibility of Le Pen looming over France — not only this summer, but until the 2027 presidential race — could fuel skepticism about Macron’s pledges at the European level, such as support for Ukraine and boosting the E.U. budget.

“I think Le Pen has been having that pervasive influence on the credibility of commitments Macron’s been announcing for quite some time. And now we’re going to see that manifest in a more explicit way,” Rahman said.

The first round of voting on June 30 will take place just three days after a meeting of the European Council, when E.U. leaders will shape the mandate for the years ahead. Less than two weeks after the second round of voting, on July 7, European leaders are set to meet in London to discuss aid to Ukraine. And on July 26, the Paris Olympics will begin, with all eyes on the French capital.

“It’s a bit strange that France is entering a phase of political paralysis — when there is an election, no decisions can be taken — at a time when there are so many major international deadlines,” said Michel Duclos, an expert at the Institut Montaigne think tank and former French diplomat.

His success or failure will depend on his party’s ability to mobilize voters with arguments about the nationalist threat and the survival of Europe — arguments that failed to cut through in Sunday night’s elections.

Ukraine may be a more effective line of attack. Allegations of improper ties to Moscow have hung over the National Rally and its officials for years and likely contributed to Marine Le Pen’s loss in the second round of the 2022 presidential election.

In a memorable moment of that campaign, Macron told Le Pen in a televised debate: “You are speaking to your banker when you speak about Russia” — a reference to roughly $10 million loan that her party, formerly called the National Front, received in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank that has since shut down. Bardella has tried to move past this, and his party announced that it had repaid the loan in full last year, but voters may seek clarity on his position.

While Bardella has condemned Russia’s invasion, he has also said he does not see Russia as the enemy. Members of the European Parliament known for their close relations with Moscow such as Thierry Mariani were still on National Rally’s list.

In Italy, Meloni’s party performed well, firming up her position as a rising conservative star and potential kingmaker in E.U. negotiations.

In Germany, the far-right took second place despite a series of recent scandals. Ahead of the vote, 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.

Outside Europe’s most populous countries, the far right did not do as well — losing seats in Poland and Scandinavia, where they had previously made major inroads. It set up a new dynamic: Nationalist and anti-migrant parties once saw their strongest performances in smaller nations, but now their influence is being most felt in Europe’s traditional core.

Faiola reported from Rome and Timsit from Paris.

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