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OPINION

What does France’s far-right EU poll shocker really mean?

Photo: AFP
5 min

France and Europe are reeling from the “earthquake” of the National Front’s historic gains in Sunday’s European parliament elections. FRANCE 24’s Sylvain Attal examines what this spells for Europe’s future.

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The ripples of the National Front’s (FN) historic victory in the European parliament elections will undoubtedly be felt far beyond our borders.

With 24.8% of the French vote – which should get the FN around 24 MEPs (Member of European Parliament), up from the current three – the potential effects are significant. The “europtimists” in the 751-member parliament will be weakened by the fresh new wave of “eurosceptics”.

A day after the elections, Europeans are wondering if the French still have an appetite for Europe. France’s role as the bedrock of the European Union will be weakened – and that’s scary.

But can we, in all honesty, say the National Front (FN) is "the largest party in France" or declare that the extreme right now holds the upper hand? That would be stretching it too far for an election that was viewed more as a punching bag than a vote that would change anything back home in France. As political scientist Dominique Reynié notes, the positioning of the National Front is a “tactical conversion to a kind of social chauvinism”.

There is another possible reading of Sunday’s election results. In crisis-hit Europe, the political confrontation is not so much between the Left and Right since major national parties essentially have the same policies on Brussels. It’s between the “populists” (who constitute a third of the electorate and will struggle to unite) and the "realists” (the two-thirds comprised of conservatives, liberals and social democrats who often vote together).

The FN’s strong showing on Sunday night was shocking and predictable. The 2014 voter turnout was marginally higher than the 2009 record low. But at 42.4% it still means one in every two voters did not cast their ballots in this election. Add to that the economic difficulties confronting marginalised sections of the electorate, a complex voting system, a penchant for Brussels-bashing, and the absence of a charismatic personality such as Marine Le Pen in the pro-European camp and the results start to make sense. Finally, and most importantly, in the lead-up to the vote, a cacophony of discontent was monopolised by the populists and extremists.

At the ballot box, did voters really understand the scope of their votes? It’s difficult to figure if the European parliament will or will not have any bearing on the new system of nominating the next president of the European Commission. And what’s the role of the Commission? Does it or does it not have legislative powers? The best experts are divided on these key questions. How can ordinary voters wade through the issues?

Let’s not forget the democratic deficit and the EU’s political weaknesses. The new parliament and the European Commission do not have any tax harmonisation powers, for example. Despite his best intentions, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi – under German surveillance – cannot contain a deflation that could plunge the EU in a new crisis that might be more serious than the current one.

In general, Reynié notes, "the ruling parties have not been able to build an alternative European program and populism has nourished this deficit.”

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy tried to exploit this vacuum in a column in the weekly, "Le Point" last week, when he criticised the Schengen system. But the column had all the credibility and posturing of a prelude to a political comeback.

The discourse in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote was dominated by the apostles of a reduced eurozone, opponents of globalization and an anti-American rhetoric on transatlantic treaty negotiations. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls tried to put his popularity at the service of the European ideal. But it was too little too late. French President François Hollande was virtually inaudible on the campaign trail while Jean-François Copé, leader of the pro-EU opposition UMP, has been mired in a PR firm scandal.

Add to that the readiness of certain media (especially television) to ride a wave of populist denunciation of the elites and you have all the ingredients of an FN victory.

It’s a high moment for Marine Le Pen. But how long will it last since she refuses to acknowledge the simple truth that France’s future lies at the heart of Europe, a Europe that needs to march into the future? We now have to see how she manages to form a parliamentary coalition of “eurosceptics” who have no policy proposals besides dismantling a project that has been built over the past 70 years.

The only real consequence of the vote, according to political scientist Reynié, is that from going from three to around 24 MEPs, the FN now has a “fat cash envelope” that will provide oxygen for their future political battles at home.

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