France enters election mode after far-right win in European Parliament vote

French President Emmanuel Macron appears on a screen following results after the polls closed in the European Parliament elections, in Paris, France, June 9, 2024. REUTERS/Abdul Saboor

BY Marc BURLEIGH, with Stuart WILLIAMS in Paris and Alice RITCHIE in Rome AFP

Far-right gains in EU elections triggered a political earthquake in France on Sunday, with President Emmanuel Macron calling snap legislative polls in a high-risk move.

Though centrist mainstream parties kept an overall majority in the European Parliament, across the bloc extreme right parties notched a string of high-profile wins.

They finished first in France, Italy and Austria and came second in Germany and the Netherlands, according to preliminary results.

“We will build a bastion against the extremes from the left and from the right,” vowed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whose centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) scored top place.

More than 360 million Europeans across 27 countries were eligible to vote to elect the 720-seat legislature.

The next parliament, and the next commission, will have to deal with Russia’s continuing war in Ukraine, global trade tensions marked by US-China rivalry, a climate emergency and the prospect of a disruptive new Donald Trump presidency.

As the EPP’s lead candidate, von der Leyen wants a second mandate running the commission.

EU leaders are to start deciding whether to name her or another choice as early as June 17, ahead of a June 27-28 summit.

– Blow for Macron –

In France, though, a resounding EU poll win by the far-right National Rally (RN) party of Marine Le Pen dealt such a blow to Macron that he called national legislative elections for June 30, a month before the Paris Olympics.

“I cannot act as if nothing had happened,” he said in a national address. The French people, he said, must now make “the best choice for itself and future generations”.

The RN won 31.5 percent of the vote to 15 percent for Macron’s centrist Renaissance party, according to exit polls.

“We are ready to take power if the French show trust in us,” Le Pen told her party, whose leader is Jordan Bardella, her 28-year-old TikTok-friendly protege.

Macron himself will see through the rest of his current — and final — presidential term which ends in 2027, at which point Le Pen has ambitions of succeeding him.

The French drama electrified an already charged day as votes were cast and tallied, and attention was focused on how well the far right fared in each country.

In Germany, the EU’s biggest economy, the scandal-plagued, fiercely anti-immigrant AfD party handed dismal news to Chancellor Olaf Scholz by beating his Social Democrats 16 percent to 14 percent.

The AfD — judged too extreme for Le Pen, who broke off an alliance with it just before the elections — was kept in place by the opposition CDU-CSU bloc, which won 29.5 percent, while the Greens won 12 percent.

The far-right parties in the Netherlands and Belgium both also gained ground, but came up short compared with voter intentions credited to them before the elections.

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party led the count according to exit polls, the first time the group has topped a nationwide ballot in the Alpine country.

In Italy, the ruling post-fascist Brothers of Italy of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni did better than predicted, coming out on top with 28 percent. The result made her one of the rare major European leaders to emerge strengthened from the polls.

In Hungary, almost-final results showed Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s far-right Fidesz party headed for what could be its worst score in its 14-year rule, a still substantial 44 percent but well down on the 52 percent it won in 2019.

– Far-right divide –

The various extreme-right parties are broken into factions in the European Parliament.

While all share anti-immigrant platforms, divisions run deep between those wanting to keep up Europe’s role helping Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion, such as Meloni’s party, and those leery of it, which include Le Pen’s RN.

“The voices of the extreme right and the populist right cannot be added together, this will limit their direct weight in the legislature,” Sebastien Maillard, of French think tank the Jacques Delors Institute, told AFP.

“But the brown (far-right) wave, particularly evident in France, will inevitably permeate the political climate in which the Commission will act and the majority will have to take it into account,” he added.

Provisional results from the parliament after all polls closed showed the centre-right EPP with 189 seats, the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) with 135, and the Renew Europe grouping that includes Macron’s party with 83.

The EPP registered a slight gain, while the S&D and Renew lost seats, taking into account the parliament swelling to 720 members from a previous 705 because of demographic growth in EU countries.

The two far-right groups, the ECR and ID, were respectively credited with 72 and 58 seats — proportionally roughly the same as before. Other far-right parties, such as the AfD and Fidesz, were unaffiliated but could end up incorporating into one of the factions.

Von der Leyen hailed the EPP’s result, calling the group “the anchor of stability”.

Elsewhere around Europe, Green parties appeared among the biggest losers of the night — as right-wing opponents channelled discontent into anger at the EU’s environmental push, with the Greens projected to fall to 53 seats, from more than 70 currently.

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