The rise of the National Rally (RN) in France during the European elections contrasts with the opposite trend observed in Europe, where far-right parties are in retreat, notably in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, highlights Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, GMF Vice President, Geostrategy, in an opinion article for Le Monde.

The article was orginally published in Le Monde on June 13, 2024.

The European Union is confronted with a double polarization that is putting to the test both its internal cohesion and position on the international stage. On the one hand, societal and political polarization is weakening our democracies. This phenomenon is exacerbated by recent crises: the Covid-19 pandemic, wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and economic tensions (energy prices, inflation). On the other hand, geopolitical polarization, amplified by competition between the United States and China, is redrawing global balances, often to the detriment of European industrial and strategic interests.

What the European elections reveal is not so much a "crisis of democracy" as an expression of it, at a time when European citizens are worried about Europe’s falling behind and are questioning policies, or their insufficiencies, to remedy the situation. The confirmed rise of the far-right in France and Europe reflects a "crisis of performance" on the part of the governments in power, in the face of issues that concern European citizens most: the cost of living, climate change, immigration and the return of war to the continent.

In France, the triple deficit (trade, public and financial), the fall in productivity, and the relocation of companies to the United States, due to lower energy costs and market attractiveness facilitated by the Inflation Reduction Act [enacted in August 2022], are confirming French people’s feelings of mismanagement and uncontrolled headlong rush.

On these issues, the European Union (EU) is often perceived as a problem rather than a solution. An EU that is excessively regulatory, even punitive when it comes to ecological transition, with a Green Deal that exacerbates territorial divides and our dependence on China. An EU that is too lax on migration policy. An EU that is too naive and under-tooled on geopolitical and geo-economic issues, reinforcing our dual dependence and vulnerability to the United States and China. The answer to these challenges lies in implementing the Versailles agenda [set during the French presidency of the EU Council in 2022] on European sovereignty, which is nevertheless struggling to take root in France.

A new East-West divide

Several key trends emerge independently of the results of the snap parliamentary elections: the Franco-German leadership crisis will deepen and accelerate the recomposition of political balances in Europe; the French political scene will continue to be transformed by the normalization of the Rassemblement National (RN), weakening France's position in Europe; the European agenda will undergo adjustments to respond to the concerns expressed during these elections.

The performance crisis crystallizes in the Franco-German leadership crisis: France confirms its singularity with a far-right group representing 40% of the French electorate and the Republican Front collapsing. In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz's social democrats in the SPD achieved their worst performance ever, with the CDU and the AfD now emerging as Germany's two main political forces. In Italy, too, the Fratelli d'Italia party came out on top, consolidating the position of the President of the Council of Ministers Giorgia Meloni.

These developments are reshaping the European political landscape, in contrast to the opposite trend in Central Europe, where far-right parties are on the decline, notably in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. The French unknown prompted Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to declare that it "places an ever-growing responsibility on our shoulders for the future of Europe". This new East-West divide will redefine the dynamics within the European Council, where Scholz's and Macron's influence will be reduced, and will encourage autonomy reflexes in relation to a discredited Franco-German tandem.

In this respect, Macron's gamble is highly risky, since the scenarios looming for the legislative elections have the potential to lead to a political paralysis of France, resulting in an impossibility of governing and therefore weighing in on the European stage. The chronic instability of French politics would permanently weaken trust between Berlin and Paris.

Reconfiguring the political landscape

Germany's political elites are comforted in their diagnosis of a France that is falling behind, in their propensity to bypass Paris on all issues, and to forge alliances with other European countries - such as the [Berlin-initiated missile defense project] Sky Shield. This German perception of France will be difficult to reverse in the medium term. France's influence in Brussels will also be affected: 35 of the 81 French members of the European Parliament will come from the far right and will not be unable to influence the next coalition.

Emmanuel Macron runs the risk of isolating France in Europe, and putting its policy of support for Ukraine on the line. This contrasts with the major advances made by Paris within the EU in recent years: the post-Covid-19 recovery plan, the rehabilitation of nuclear power as a clean source of electricity, the development (with Berlin) of a common industrial policy, and the priority given to European strategic autonomy.

These major European issues, which in the end received little attention during the campaign, are vital to the future of France and the EU. Because the scale of the challenges at stake means that France cannot act alone.  In that regard, Macron has missed the opportunity to link the challenges of European sovereignty (Versailles agenda) with the challenges of French sovereignty, both of which are mutually reinforcing.

The reconfiguration of the European political landscape will lead to adjustments in European policies: the Green Deal will be partially suspended in favor of a more economically focused agenda and more aggressive industrial policies, notably in the automotive and green technology sectors. Migration policy will continue the security shift already begun with the adoption of the European Pact on Migration and Asylum on May 14. The geopolitical ambitions set by Ursula von der Leyen's European Commission and the EU's policy of support for Ukraine could be revised downwards. Lastly, the EU will remain dependent on external events and shocks, particularly the presidential election in the United States, which should prompt the EU to take the lead where Washington may be retreating.