European elections showed that while a powerful extreme-right has become a permanent characteristic of French politics, this has not prevented France from assuming a central role at the European level. The latter was confirmed by the outcome of negotiations on the new institutional setup of the European Union, which was definitely favourable for France. However, Macron’s ability to further increase French influence within European institutions will depend mostly on his capacity to build efficient political alliances and the evolution of the internal situation in France.
A brief analysis of the EU elections in France shows that the country is in line with European mainstream tendencies. First, the French turnout increased substantially, culminating to 50% (42% in 2014, 40% in 2009), a percentage identical to that of the EU. Even if this outcome is largely the result of a (concerning) political polarisation between pro and anti-EU, we should welcome positively this overall rising political involvement as it is increasing the EP’s democratic legitimacy. Also, the strong performance of the far-right and the simultaneous rise of liberal and green parties confirmed that France can be treated here as a Europe in miniature. Indeed, the far-right Rassemblement National (23,3% – 23 seats) of Marine Le Pen achieved a very slight victory over a new party Renaissance (22,4% – 22 seats) established by President Emanuel Macron. At the same time, mainstream traditional political forces (centre-right and centre-left) are in the middle of a crisis in Europe. It was particularly reflective in France with the catastrophic results of the Left (6,2% – 6 seats) and of the Right (8,5% – 8 seats). With these results, France remains in the pro-EU countries group and will be able to play a key role in the EU political game.
Undoubtedly, Macron will strongly influence France’s position in the EU for the next 5 years. It is already visible in the nomination process of EU top positions as he managed to evict Weber and the Spitzenkandidaten procedure for the post of the President of the EC. At the same time, Lagarde – a highly influential French politician – has been appointed the head of the ECB. Such a nomination was the main objective of Macron in the perspective of Eurozone reforms. The current political situation in the European Council is particularly favourable to President Macron as he can rely on seven political allies from the Liberal side and on some circumstantial partners among the Socialist (Sanchez, Costa ) or Conservative (Borissov, Varadkar) sides. With such a strong position, Macron may be able to align the French EU agenda with its own ideas (see For European Renewal) and to influence considerably European political priorities and orientations.
Within the EP, the French position is less idealistic. Indeed, a first concern is the general inexperience of French MEPs in European politics – 75% of them being newcomers. The second issue is the weakness of French delegations in the two of the most important European political groups (8 in EPP and 5 in S&D) – despite some eminent members including Danjean and Andrieu. The last issue is the inability of French MEPs to lead a single EP political group. The shortcoming was highlighted by the “melodramatic” performance of Loiseau, who lost the Presidency of Renew. Giving the EP composition, only LREM MEPs seems to have the capacity to play a big role in EP coalition building. In order to have strength in EU politics orientation, France will also need strategic nominations in EC and EP commissions. The Energy and Taxation and Customs Unions should be top priorities given the French EU agenda.
In order to consolidate its central position in the EU, France will also have to renew its alliances. If the Franco-German alliance will remain a strong element of EU developments, most probably tensions will also increase between the two partners. Merkel and CDU’s European leadership are challenged by France on its predominance in Europe (Paris prefers the EU headed by the French-German tandem based on equality) and this trend is likely to continue until the 2021 German elections (or before in the case of snap elections). In order to gain leverage in relations with Berlin, France must look for new strategic alliances, and Sanchez’s Spain seems to be the perfect ally at the moment. Both countries share similar views on Europe and similar concerns (budget, defence cooperation). As such, a strong partnership between the two Mediterranean countries is likely to materialize.
France should consider a special effort to rebuild a deteriorated relationship with Italy. Indeed, Macron and Salvini have settled a conflictual relationship due to antagonist political ideologies (especially on migration issues). The spectacular rise of the far-right in Italy – Lega is currently approaching 40% in opinion polls – combined with its economic structural deficiencies (rising gigantic public debt, low productivity and employment rate) concerns many European allies. A particular fear is the disrespect of budgetary requirements by Salvini and the risk of crisis in the Italian banking system (non-performing loans). This would be a frightening scenario for France due to their interlinked banking systems.
However, even If Spain appears as a convincing ally, it won’t be enough to reinforce France’s position within the EU. France has to intensify cooperation with smaller member states and in this case, certain Central and Eastern European countries could be interesting partners. France should take into account that in coming months national elections will be held in Romania and Slovakia, which most probably will bring to power parties from Renew Europe. It is worth noting that the political group is headed by Dacian Cioloș, an experienced Romanian politician.
Macron has a real chance to strengthen the French position within the EU, but he also has to realize that a further deterioration of France’s internal situation could dramatically undermine his quest for European leadership (budgetary issues and social tensions are particularly concerning). It seems that Emmanuel Macron should rethink his strategy of political polarisation of French society. If such a strategy leads him towards a second term as President, it will also strengthen considerably Rassemblement National and make France more divided than ever. Recent polls indicate that 45% of French citizens are ready for Le Pen against Macron in a potential second round of Presidential elections.
Author: Romain Lequiniou