Jun 10, 2024 - World

Far-right gains trigger elections in France, reckoning in Europe

Le Pen and Bardella

National Rally leaders Marine Le Pen (center) and Jordan Bardella (right) at a rally in Paris on June 2. Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Europe's far right gained historic ground in continent-wide elections Sunday, with devastating losses forcing French President Emmanuel Macron to concede that the threat from nationalists could no longer be ignored.

  • The center held in some countries, but a surge by the radical right — especially in Germany — has put pro-democracy parties on notice.

Why it matters: Macron stunned Europe last night by announcing he would hold new legislative elections later this month — three years early, and in the middle of preparations for the Paris Olympics.

  • The extraordinary gamble came moments after European Parliament exit polls pointed to a dominant showing by Marine Le Pen's National Rally and major gains for other far-right parties across Europe.
  • "The rise of nationalists and demagogues is a danger for our nation and for Europe," Macron said. "After this day, I cannot go on as though nothing has happened."

The big picture: This year's European elections — in which 370 million people were eligible to vote across 27 countries — were ground zero for the wave of anti-incumbent fervor sweeping the globe.

  • Conservative and hard-right parties gained seats at the expense of Macron-aligned liberal and Green parties — with the latter suffering from backlash to the EU's aggressive climate transition plans.
  • As in the U.S., immigration, inflation and threats to democracy dominated the campaign, which was plagued by spurts of political violence in the final weeks before the election.

Zoom in: In Germany, the EU's largest and most important country, the extremist-right AfD party finished second to the conservatives — but ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats.

  • In Italy, right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni solidified her cult of personality with a comfortable victory that will make her one of the EU's most powerful leaders — and a potential conservative king-maker.
  • In the Netherlands, anti-Islam campaigner Geert Wilders came in close second to a progressive coalition after pulling off a shock victory in November's national elections.

The intrigue: The AfD and other far-right parties continue to make significant inroads with young voters, according to exit polls, a trend that has alarmed pro-democracy activists.

The other side: Despite the setbacks, a centrist, pro-EU majority remains in firm control of the European Parliament.

  • In Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk's allies eked out a hugely symbolic victory over the right-wing Law and Justice party, which was accused of undermining democratic institutions during its eight years in power.
  • Hungary's ruling Fidesz Party, led by illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orban, was on track for its worst result ever in a European Parliament election.

The bottom line: The center of gravity in Brussels has undoubtedly shifted, but Europe's firewall against the far-right remains intact. The fate of the governments in France and Germany could dictate how long that remains true.

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