For the European Union’s founding countries, 2019 marks forty years of elections for the body’s parliament. Last Sunday, May 26, the latest results offered insight into the continent’s plunge into ever-greater tumult. In France, as in 2014, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly Front) came out on top, with just over 23 percent of the vote, cementing the party’s standing not only in the European Parliament but also as the chief electoral rival of President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-business agenda for France. This new duopoly has, at least for the time being, replaced the long-lasting Socialist–conservative one, whose hold on the Fifth Republic collapsed in 2017. With Les Républicains falling to a record-low 8.4 percent last Sunday (and the Socialists narrowly avoiding total erasure from the European political map with 6.2 percent, through a half-hearted alliance with a new group, Place Publique), the standard-bearers of the old order have been all but buried.
The consolidation of this new bipartisan landscape is one that the young president and far-right leaders alike aggressively cultivated in the lead-up to the European vote, which they styled respectively as a rematch of the battle between “progressives vs. nationalists” (Macron’s terms) or “globalists vs. patriots” (the RN’s) that first played out in France in the presidential election of 2017. It remains to be seen whether this new duopoly will last outside the unique conditions of the EU elections. What is clear, though, is that the RN remains a force to be reckoned with. The successful rebranding of Le Pen’s party since her decisive defeat in the second round of the 2017 election, her tactical alliance with other icons of xenophobic reaction like Italy’s Matteo Salvini (which allowed her to lend international prestige to a campaign run overwhelmingly on national lines), and the fact that this victory came in a context of greater voter turnout than in any European election since 1994 all suggest the party possesses an unnerving political savvy.
Nevertheless, it is important to avoid sensationalizing the French results, and falling into the trap that Macron and Le Pen have together set. Rather than an “unprecedented” surge, anti-European nationalists are reaping the fruits of historical trends, which demand a longer view. Battles between defenders of European integration and its opponents—on the xenophobic right but also the anticapitalist left—have been more the norm than the exception in French politics for several decades. They’ve been equally divisive for left and right alike, provoking splits and realignments that have been as agonizing for socialists as they have been invigorating for Le Pen’s party. (The splintering of the left-wing vote between four different lists last Sunday—who between them earned 18 percent of the vote, or 32 percent if you factor in the Greens—is testament to this.) But perhaps the most striking paradox is that this clash has been fed by the structure of the European elections themselves.
The Deep Roots of Opposition to the EU
In France, controversies over the European question are as old as the project of integration itself—more so, perhaps, than in any other EU country. And this is one of the keys to understanding last Sunday’s results.
Going back to the middle of the twentieth century, we can identify three key moments in which French opposition to the EU crystallized, and which continue to resonate today. As early as the 1950s, two then-major parties led the charge against a budding “Europe”: communists on the left and Gaullists on the right. On the communist side, this opposition grew out of a combination of Cold War hostility toward U.S. interference on the one hand and, on the other, a defense of the revolutionary legacy of the French state, conceived as the cornerstone of the redistributive project. For the right, it reflected fears for an erosion of French national sovereignty as then incarnated in Charles de Gaulle.
Beyond these two camps, the year 1954 was also marked by what French intellectual Raymond Aron called “the biggest ideological-political quarrel that France has known, probably, since the Dreyfus affair”: namely, the debates over the creation of a European Defense Community, which cut across the entire French political spectrum. The initiative was rejected that year by a majority of the French parliament.
Why such opposition to European integration in France, both on left and right? The explanation can be traced as far back as the eighteenth century, as France’s historically strong position in international affairs, its colonial empire, and its highly centralized, Jacobin model of state power fostered various strains of opposition to federalism or other impositions from beyond the country’s borders. With a collective memory and national identity less contested than that of its neighbors who underwent dictatorship—Germany and Spain most notably, but also other central and eastern European countries—France was able to imagine itself as a nation apart, one whose democratic institutions did not need international legitimation.
The “Maastricht Moment” and After
More recently, it was two key referendums that politicized the European question and divided the French electorate: that over the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 (which set the legal foundations for the common market, leading among other things to the creation of the euro) and the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe in 2005. Much more so than in EU parliamentary elections, the entire French political sphere was deeply invested in these two referendums—including, notably, French voters, nearly 70 percent of whom turned out for both the 1992 and 2005 referendums. (In 1999, by contrast, less than half of voters turned up for the European polls, and participation continued to decline after that. It was only this year that turnout once again cleared the 50 percent mark.)
The “Maastricht moment” is a historic marker for several reasons. The first is for its effect on the French right, which was torn apart by then-president François Mitterrand’s decision to call a referendum on the treaty. The EU’s promotion of free trade as well as of a supranational model of citizenship pitted a young generation of business conservatives against both national identitarians and Gaullists committed to the welfare state. This split helped fuel a burst of right-wing sovereignism well into the 1990s, carried by nationalists of various stripes. Anti-EU splinter parties proliferated, some led by major political figures like former interior minister Charles Pasqua.
But the most enduring beneficiary of the anti-Maastricht mood on the right was the National Front. The party saw an opening to hitch its nationalist, anti-immigrant program to wider anti-EU sentiment, running for EU parliament in 1994 under the banner, “Against the Europe of Maastricht, Go France!” Over the course of the following decade, the FN came to be identified by voters as the major opponent to the EU on the right, with the help of 2003 election reforms that hobbled its smaller rivals. Its efforts to divide the political landscape between “Europeanists” and “patriots” were beginning to pay off.
The left, too, sketched an enduring critique of the EU in the Maastricht moment. Carried once again by the Communist Party, in a moment of post-1989 renewal, as well as by Trotskyist groups and a decade later by Jean-Luc Mélenchon (then representing the left wing of the Socialist Party before launching his own political movement in 2008), it gained steam through the end of the 1990s and 2000s alongside the European alter-globalization movement. This tide of left-wing opposition culminated in 2005 in a major (and successful) campaign against the ratification of the EU’s newly signed Constitutional Treaty, which leftists denounced as neoliberal and anti-democratic. But the referendum—this time called by Jacques Chirac—also destabilized and divided the Socialists, leaving scars on the French left that were all too visible in last Sunday’s fractured left-wing vote.
France’s rejection of the 2005 treaty, by a vote of 55 to 45 percent, did not do much to alter the direction of the EU. (If anything, it reinforced the bloc’s leaders determination to avoid putting key decisions to a popular vote; they avoided putting the revised Lisbon Treaty through national referendums after it was signed in 2007.)
But it did push criticism of the EU into the mainstream. By the time of the 2009 European elections, virtually all of France’s major parties were calling for “another Europe.” Socialists and conservatives alike had effectively taken up the watchword of the alter-globalization movement—even if they didn’t do much to put this slogan into practice. Short of taking power, Europe’s opponents were winning the battle of ideas. The 2008 economic crisis, Brexit, and the rise of the far right would only reinforce this trend, allowing Emmanuel Macron to seize on the political opening in defense of the EU, while gesturing, however vaguely, toward its reform.
The Impact of European Elections on National Political Life
There are two things to take away from these decades of contestation over the EU. The first is the paradoxical effect of European elections on French national politics. Because they operate on a proportional system, the EU elections create an opening to outsiders that is rarely afforded in national elections, which filter out all but the largest parties in an initial knockout round. This opening has allowed smaller parties to gradually chip away at the national political order, by giving them a platform from which to build and maintain their influence.
This has been true for the Greens (a trend significantly reinforced last Sunday, when they came in third with 13.5 percent) and for parts of the left (notably Mélenchon’s Left Front in 2009 and 2014) but above all for the National Front, which for the last three decades has put the EU at the center of its political project. Europe is both one of party’s favorite targets and its training ground: from 1984 to 2014, all of the party’s leaders served as MEPs, allowing them to devote their lives to politics. “Europe” is also one of the RN’s favored dog whistles for immigration and the threat it poses to the far right’s image of a culturally homogenous French nation. During a January rally, Le Pen warned that mass migration, as promoted by Macron’s vision of Europe, would “dilute” the French people to the point of making it “disappear.”
The “Euroskeptic” Tide in Perspective
In 2014, when the FN won the European vote for the first time with nearly 25 percent, mainstream media was quick to herald a Euroskeptic tide. This year’s repeat win—buoyed in absolute numbers by higher turnout but slightly lower in proportional terms at 23 percent—in some respects bears that narrative out.
But this sovereignist push does not mark such a great departure from longer-running trends. The tallies achieved by the various sovereignists of the right in 2014 and 2019 are higher than those of the 1990s, but only slightly: roughly 29 percent this year and in 2014, versus 25 and 27 percent in 1999 and 1994.
The real change over the last two cycles lies in the tightening of the vote around the RN, which confirms Marine Le Pen’s alarming electoral success over the last decade but also the underlying weight of opposition to the EU. It’s important, too, to remember the role that the established right has played in bolstering Le Pen’s party over the last twenty years, notably in its concerted efforts to wipe out its smaller anti-EU opponents over the course of the 2000s.
In more ways than one, then, the far-right push in this year’s European elections in France reflects more continuity than rupture. For the RN’s enduring prowess in using the EU vote as its springboard is also the reflection of the deeper underlying paradox: European elections have shown considerable power to stir up major political debates—over the place of the nation-state, the mechanisms of democracy, the virtues of the free market (or lack thereof), and more broadly the creation of an affirmative, collective identity. But they’ve had little success in extending these controversies to a truly international, let alone continental, scale. Without major reforms to the voting process, but also to EU policies and the bloc’s institutional culture more broadly—strengthening the power of the Parliament and its influence over the Commission, or even developing direct-democratic processes such as citizens’ legislative initiative—European elections will continue to serve more as a boxing ring for national leaders than the forum for meaningful debates over the direction of the continent.
Emmanuelle Reungoat is an assistant professor of political science and codirector of the department of political science at the University of Montpellier. She is the author of Enquête sur les opposants à l’Europe à droite et à gauche : leur impact d’hier à aujourd’hui (Editions Bord de l’eau, 2019).
Colin Kinniburgh is a Paris-based journalist and translator, and an editor-at-large at Dissent.