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ANALYSIS

French far right shows renewed strength in blow for Macron

Bertrand Guay, AFP | Marine Le Pen, after the National Rally's victory in the European elections, , Sunday 26 May 2019,

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen came out on top in France’s European Elections with 23.3% of the vote in a blow for French President Emmanuel Macron, who had personally waded into the campaign.

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“Vote against Macron,” the far-right National Rally’s (NR) tracts said. The results of Sunday’s vote suggest a quarter of French voters listened.

Marine Le Pen’s NR won 23.3% of the vote, Macron’s centrist La République en Marche (the Republic on the Move) came in second place with 22.4% and there was a surprise surge for the Green Party, Europe Écologie Les Verts, who scored 13.5%.

The centre-right Les Républicains won 8.5% -- their worst ever showing in an election -- and the French Socialists languished in fifth place at 6.2%.

The NR’s first-place showing is not just a triumph for the Eurosceptic far right but shows their party leader had bounced back from the second round of the 2017 presidential election, where she lost to her arch-rival Macron.

Shortly after exit polls were announced, a beaming Le Pen described the result as a “victory for the people" and called on Macron to dissolve the French parliament.

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe called the results “disappointing” but said it wouldn’t affect the government’s reform drive.

“There is of course some disappointment,” Philippe said. “But the score is absolutely honourable compared to how incumbents did in previous European elections. There was no sanction.”

Analysts were quick to point out that the French far right had failed to improve on its results in the 2014 European election, where it also topped the vote, partly as a result of low turnout.

FRANCE 24’s Dave Keating, reporting from Brussels, said it “could have been worse” for Macron.

Others said that Macron’s second-place showing was more of a “symbolic set-back”.

Sophie Pedder, Paris bureau chief for the Economist, tweeted on Sunday evening that: “In some ways it’s remarkable that Macron is even on Le Pen’s heels. In 2014 the sitting president François Hollande scored just 14% and came 3rd. So 2nd place ought to be respectable for a mid-term vote.”

She added that “Coming 2nd won’t also affect Macron’s strong domestic parliamentary majority, nor in theory his ability to govern. But he upped the stakes and made the vote personal, and so 2nd place will be a symbolic set-back.”

Showdown between Le Pen and the president

Sunday’s vote was set up as a showdown between Le Pen and the French president. Jordan Bardella, from the northern Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, chosen by Le Pen to top her NR list, had framed the election as a “referendum on Macron”.

Bardella, 23, now becomes the youngest MEP to take a seat in Brussels. He called the results of Sunday’s vote a “lesson in humility’ for Macron, and “a rejection of him and his policies”.

In late 2018, polls showed the National Rally were capitalising on months of raucous Yellow Vest protests, which began as a movement against high fuel prices and spread to wider discontent against the French president’s policies.

"The Yellow Vest crisis and the Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen duel helped to set up Jordan Bardella's list as the main receptacle for anger and anti-Macron voting," Jérôme Fourquet, director of the Ifop polling Institute, told AFP.

Sunday’s vote showed the president’s “Great National Debate”, set up in the wake of the Yellow Vest protests, has failed to quell voter discontent. Macron ran on a centrist ticket for the presidency but has since alienated voters on the left with policies -- such as tax breaks for the rich and a tough line on immigration -- that veer to the right.

Meanwhile Le Pen, seeing Britain engulfed in the chaos of Brexit, shifted her campaign away from calls for a Frexit. Her party’s election manifesto made no reference to leaving the EU or the Euro. Instead it aims to reform the EU from within.

'Populists versus progressives'

The pro-European president had framed the vote as “populists versus progressives”. In an impassioned open letter on 4 March he called for a “European renaissance” and described the elections as the most important since the bloc’s first parliamentary ballot in 1979.

But his choice of former European Affairs Minister, Nathalie Loiseau -- his “secret weapon” in Brexit talks -- whose conservative, Catholic background was meant to woo the centre-right -- didn't do him many favours.

Her lacklustre campaign failed to ignite, and was plagued by a string of gaffes. When French investigative website Mediapart revealed she had once campaigned on a far-right ticket as a student, she dismissed it as a “stupid mistake”.

Loiseau acknowledged disappointment in failing to top the poll but urged all pro-European forces "to unite to defend the interests of the Europeans" and not let the European Union fall into the hands of "those who want to unbuild it".

"For us, the fight is not over,” Loiseau said. “We will conduct it in the European Parliament, to prevent nationalists from weakening France and blocking progress the French people expect."

“If Macron’s party were to finish second to Le Pen’s now, it would reverse the dynamic of the 2017 presidential election and deal a severe blow to Macron’s ambition to lead a progressive revival of pro-European liberals against national populists in France and across the EU,” Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University, told FRANCE 24.

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