They might use different words for it, but the conflict they’ve worked so hard to promote is finally at the center of French politics: President Emmanuel Macron refers to it as a clash between “progressives” and “nationalists,” while Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally (RN), formerly the National Front, calls it a battle between “globalists” and “patriots.” On Sunday, nearly half of all voters in France’s election for European Parliament opted for one of these two camps—and it was Le Pen’s side that triumphed.
The RN won 23 percent of the vote, just ahead of Macron’s En Marche. Only one other party, Europe Ecology–The Greens, topped the 10 percent threshold. Meanwhile, the two historic postwar political families, the Republicans and the Socialists, each notched their worst score since France started electing EU parliamentarians in 1979. It’s an ugly picture for just about anyone who doesn’t harbor sympathies for the far right.
Those seeking to minimize the success of the RN point to two things: low voter turnout and a score that’s slightly below the RN’s showing in the previous round of European elections, in 2014. While true, these observations are incomplete. About half of all French voters showed up at the polls on Sunday—a much lower share than in a presidential election, to be sure—but still enough to be one of the country’s highest participation levels for an EU election. All in all, the RN won about 600,000 more votes than it did in 2014.
The far-right party led in about three-quarters of all French départements, earning particularly strong support in parts of the country reeling from unemployment and deindustrialization. In the northern département of Pas de Calais, the heart of the former mining basin, the RN nearly doubled the score of En Marche. And it received 40 percent of the vote in the rural Aisne, just an hour and a half from Paris by train. This looks more and more like a consolidated base—a reliable bloc of supporters rather than protest voters looking to lash out at the Parisian establishment.
Perhaps the biggest key to the party’s success is its ability to strip away support from the mainstream right. Many pundits have focused on the RN’s supposed convergence with left-wing populists, and the specter of a “red-brown alliance” does make for good cocktail-party conversation, but the party is actually far more effective at winning over conservatives than lefties. According to an election day poll from Harris Interactive, 17 percent of voters for the mainstream-right candidate in the 2017 presidential election shifted their allegiance to the RN on Sunday. Just 8 percent of those who opted for the left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2017 did the same.
Still, while turnout may have surpassed expectations, it doesn’t change the fact that Sunday’s elections were of little interest to a large chunk of voters. That’s because the European Parliament has surprisingly little power. It cannot write legislation on its own and is limited to voting on proposals that come from the European Commission. True believers in the EU vaunted the campaign’s focus on the various Spitzenkandidat, trans-national party list leaders who were, in theory, running against one another to run the Commission. But even this was misleading. While Parliament approves the makeup of the Commission, it’s the European Council that retains the authority to nominate members—in other words, national European governments.
As such, European elections tend to draw in those with strong feelings about the EU, one way or the other. That includes a good number of Macron sympathizers, inspired by various calls to “strengthen Europe” as well as Le Pen supporters hell-bent on restoring “national sovereignty.” In either case, it’s shaky ground for the left, which, two decades after the signature of the Maastricht Treaty, still hasn’t reached a consensus over how to talk about the European Union or over what, if anything, should be done to change it.
Caught in the middle, nearly every left-wing party in France performed poorly, following a trend across the continent. It didn’t help that there were five different major options to choose from, each of them having insisted on running its own list: The Greens (13 percent), La France Insoumise (6 percent), and the Socialists (6 percent) all crossed the 5 percent threshold needed to send representatives to Brussels and Strasbourg, while both the Communist Party and Génération.s (the main French affiliate of Yanis Varoufakis’s European Spring alliance) failed to elect anyone.
Support for the Greens came from disillusioned left-wing voters and Macron sympathizers alike. That included people like Xavier, a 54-year-old researcher in demography who cast his ballot in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, a historically working-class but quickly gentrifying section of the capital. (He declined to give his last name because of regulations that require civil servants to keep political opinions to themselves.) “It was more about making a statement than supporting their program,” Xavier told The Nation shortly after voting for the Greens, all the while insisting he still backed the president. “I wanted to send a message.”
In 2017, voters in this section of Paris—much like the city’s low-income northeastern suburbs—preferred Jean-Luc Mélenchon above any other candidate. Things played out very differently on Sunday. While La France Insoumise activists were prepared for a poor result, few anticipated it would be this disastrous. According to the same Harris Interactive poll conducted on Sunday, only a third of Mélenchon voters stuck with the party for the European elections, with a fifth of them bolting for the Greens.
One of the loyalists was 28-year-old Antoine Netter who works in public relations. After supporting the left-wing populist party in 2017, he begrudgingly voted for them again in Paris on Sunday. “I don’t really recognize myself in Mélenchon,” he said. “[But] there aren’t really other options on the left.”
This is not the mark of a successful campaign.
In an e-mail to The Nation, La France Insoumise candidate Karin Fischer said that many LFI voters from 2017 didn’t show up at the polls. “We failed to convey to them how important the European elections actually are,” said Fischer, a professor of British and Irish studies at the University of Orleans, who was not elected on Sunday. “This is probably partly due to our necessarily complex stance on the European Union itself, but also more broadly to the fact that most people do not have a clear idea of the daily influence of the EU on their lives.”
There are signs the result could lead to some even deeper soul-searching within the party. Since its founding, La France Insoumise has remained committed to a populist strategy that aims to rally disaffected voters against “elites,” a project that involves shunning alliances with other left-wing parties and avoiding any talk of uniting the Left. The idea is to tap into the electorate’s supposed sense of dégagisme, a feeling that the entire political class needs to be kicked out and replaced. But in an interview on Monday, one of the party’s own deputies in the National Assembly, Clémentine Autain, directly criticized the strategy, arguing that Sunday’s results “call into question the political line” of LFI: “Our political family prospers when it builds itself on a sense of hope and not hate.”
That the Greens won such high levels of support from left-leaning voters might serve as a warning to those in search of a socially just alternative to Macron and Le Pen. Before the election campaign, the Greens were an empty shell of a party—and, to some extent, still are, lacking any representation in the National Assembly. Even so, voters preferred them to better-known options on the left. One can’t help but wonder if this leads some on the left to set aside their differences and consider joining forces—the alternative is to risk being swallowed by the growing cleavage pitting “patriots” against “globalists.”
Of course, France isn’t the only country to experience some version of what’s been dubbed the “Green Wave.” A mix of left-leaning and centrist voters pushed the Greens toward a historic result in Germany, where they picked up eight seats. The Greens also performed well in the United Kingdom, taking advantage of an election dominated by the question of the country’s looming departure from the EU. Still, talk of a new Green political force across Europe seems exaggerated. After all, the UK stands to lose all of its EU parliamentarians after Brexit (currently slated for late October), a move that will halve the Greens’ additions in seats. Outside of these three countries, the gains are minimal.
Far-right parties also saw strong results in Poland, Hungary, and Italy. Some well-meaning liberals have cheered the fact that these forces didn’t do even better—especially in Germany, where the Alternative for Germany party won just 10 percent of the vote. Still, with nationalists topping the polls in two of Europe’s three main founding nations, it’s hard to see how any of this is worth celebrating. The center may be holding, but it’s not on solid ground.