Published on May 27th in The Guardian
The playing down of Le Pen’s first-place position indicated how the far-right has steadily become a regular of French political life despite political opponents condemning it as racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic and hate-mongering.
When Le Pen’s National Rally topped the poll with 23.31%, less than one point ahead of Macron’s centrist grouping on 22.41%, the government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiay defined the slim margin as an honourable result for Macron, given the context. European elections traditionally bring out an anti-government protest vote. After more than six months of unprecedented yellow-vest protests and low approval ratings for the president, Macron’s party had done well to come so close to Le Pen, government figures argued. The French far right’s percentage score was down on 2014.
Macron had defined the election campaign as an existential fight between Europe-friendly progressives and Eurosceptic far-right nationalist. His camp claimed he had boosted the turnout.
Some political observers, however, criticised the now common approach of French politicians who shout about the danger of Le Pen during an election campaign, then minimise the significance of the results when the far right does well.
Le Pen’s share of the vote was higher than in the first round of the French presidential election in 2017. Her party, led by the 23-year-old Jordan Bardell, made gains in the high-abstention banlieue suburbs around Paris and in new areas of Brittany and the south-west. Macron’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe, acknowledged: “When you come second, you can’t say you’ve won.” He said Le Pen was now a de facto opposition force.
Despite the symbolic blow to Macron from Le Pen taking top place, the government’s pro-business domestic agenda to overhaul the welfare state, including on pensions and unemployment benefits, will continue. Macron’s centrists insisted their message for more European integration would still hold sway internationally. They are positioning to take a leading role in a new European parliament centrist grouping, which could hold the balance on decision-making.
Le Pen’s party took 22 European parliament seats and Macron’s grouping 21, but a UK departure from the EU would involve a redistribution, giving them 23 each.
Crucially, the strong showing for the French Green party – coming third on over 13% - was a warning message to the presidency. Macron’s high-profile environment minister quit in fury last year saying the president was not doing enough on the climate crisis. Since then, the environment has become the main concern for French voters, alongside the cost of living. The large turnout of young French voters for the Green party could push the government to step up its domestic response on the climate emergency.
Another lesson came with the collapse of the centre-right Les Républicains party, founded by Nicolas Sarkozy, which had its worst ever showing on 8.4%. The Socialists’ vote was also low and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Eurosceptic left took only 6.3%.
The results confirmed that the main battle line of French politics remains between Macron’s centrists and the far-right Le Pen.
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