France and Germany were the two founding major partners of the European Union. Since the financial crisis of 2008, though, Germany has emerged as its major force, and the result of Sunday’s vote for the European Parliament will only increase the disparity between it and France.
While Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative coalition won the largest share of the German vote, President François Hollande is the big loser in France. His Socialist Party was brutally repudiated by the French electorate, winning just 14 per cent of the vote. The right-wing, xenophobic National Front won the day, with 25 per cent – the best score ever for the party, which has now become France’s largest on the European scene.
Ms. Merkel had already taken over the leadership of the Union in the Ukrainian crisis. While Paris and Washington were voicing empty threats against Vladimir Putin, Ms. Merkel quietly negotiated with the Russian President and reached a political solution to a crisis that could have inflamed Europe if the hotheads in other capitals had acted on their verbal indignation. (It may have helped that Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin fluently speak each other’s languages.)
Britain, the third-largest member state, is already out of the EU game. The United Kingdom Independence Party, which advocates withdrawal from the EU, came first in Sunday’s election, and an upcoming referendum might very well be won by the euroskeptics. In any case, Britain has always been a reluctant partner – it has refused to adopt the euro and opted out of the Schengen agreement, which eliminated frontiers within Europe.
France and Denmark are the only two other countries that will send a majority of anti-European deputies to Strasbourg. (The idea of sending deputies to a parliament one wishes to abolish seems quite illogical, but it’s been done here in Canada, with the secessionist Bloc Québécois once becoming the Official Opposition in Ottawa.)
In France, the triumph of the National Front came in what the country’s news media described as an earthquake. The far right’s unprecedented victory illustrates that the democratic centre-right party, former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP, can no longer channel the huge wave of French anger about globalization and unemployment.
A survey by Ipsos-Steria published by Le Monde on the eve of the election showed that more voters blame their national governments than the EU for their economic woes.
As usual, National Front president Marine Le Pen ran a populist but efficient campaign against “open immigration,” the EU and the euro. (Amazingly, her party wants to return to the franc.) Over the years, she has succeeded in erasing the sulfurous image she inherited from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s anti-Semitic rants. The National Front is now treated by the media as a major party, more or less respectable – an inevitable outcome with its recent electoral performances, which have substantially increased its vote share.
However, its European parliamentary victory shouldn’t be overstated. Because the parliament doesn’t have much power, European elections are much like Canadian by-elections – risk-free opportunities to vent against one’s government. Come France’s 2017 presidential election, it’s doubtful that Ms. Le Pen will be handed the keys to the Elysée Palace.