In the wake of the European elections, questions are being asked about the rise of right-wing populism. What does this mean for France?

The results of the 2024 European Parliament election have drawn attention to an apparent move to the right among voters across several European nations. Parties such as the Alternative for Germany and France’s National Rally, formally the National Front, received an increase in margins of support.

In France, the outcome of the voting triggered President Emmanuel Macron to call for the dissolution of the National Assembly resulting in a snap election to be held on 30 June and 7 July. The chaotic days that followed resulted in a united left, with factions and parties coming together under what they call the New Popular Front.

Meanwhile, Eric Ciotti, the leader of The Republicans, which is a traditionally moderate right party, has expressed support for the National Rally — a move that experts have compared to the leader of the Liberal party creating a coalition alliance with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. As a result, he has lost confidence from members of his own party who are attempting to remove him from party leadership.

Dr Romain Fathi, a senior lecturer in history at The Australian National University (ANU), says while he had expected a dissolution at some stage given Macron has had a minority government since 2022, the events triggering the snap election in France are unusual.

“I don’t like to use the word unprecedented, because, as a historian, there always is a precedent, but what is happening at the moment is spectacular,” Fathi says.

“What Macron was betting on was that moderate people from the right and moderate people from the left would support him to prevent the rise of the National Rally.”

Instead, Fathi says, Macron has been left with a shrinking middle.

Putting water in the wine

Part of the National Rally’s job now is what Fathi calls “de-evil-ising” their image (in French, dédiabolisation). There have been efforts to move the party away from their association with anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, instead positioning themselves as a populist, anti-immigration party.

“What they’ve done is that they turned a far-right movement into a populist movement, and they’ve done so rather successfully,” Fathi says.

“But in doing so, in French, we say that they put water in their wine, as in the wine has been diluted. There is a genuine, small rise of the far right, but the major factor here is the transformation of the far right into a more palatable product for the electorate.”

This change has involved the National Rally opening up their policies to issues outside of immigration, including social programs “in a kind of charitable, Catholic inheritance”, gaining support from workers.

“The French, despite burning cars and having huge protests, do quite like stability and order”

Dr Romain Fathi

Some commentaries have suggested that young people have been drawn to the right across Europe. In France, the National Rally received 25 per cent of the vote among 18- to 24-year-olds in the European elections, according to Ipsos. Other polls indicate 35 per cent of the vote for the 25 to 34 age group. 

The party have also let new blood in, including 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, who has been active in reaching out to young people on social media platforms such as Tik Tok.

“Extending from the old people who are scared of immigration, to the workers and to the youth, they’ve been able to expand their electoral base,” Fathi says.

Democracy is fragile

But it may be too early to make broad statement about French support of the right-wing, populist movements.

There is a long-standing practice of using the European elections to send a message to Paris through vote sanction — a protest vote indicating dissatisfaction with national politics rather than European-level interests.

“What is unique is that Macron has conflated European and French issues,” Fathi says.

“If you look at the European level, except for Germany and France, there are about the same number of far-right supporters in the parliament that was elected in 2019 as there is in the renewed parliament of 2024 — that’s if you take a large definition of what the far right is.”

There is also a chance that, because of the nature of France’s two-round electoral system, the desire to protest vote may disappear by the second round of voting.

“The French, despite burning cars and having huge protests, do quite like stability and order,” Fathi says.

“What Macron is doing is reminiscent of what [former president] de Gaulle did in 1968. There was a massive protest in the streets and so he called for an election. You know what he got? An even bigger majority. Because people had had enough of the mess.

“The thing is, though, the unrest hasn’t reached that level for Macron, even with the yellow vests. So, has he pulled the trigger too early? We’ll see.”

A yellow vests demonstration. Photo: C. Aucher/stock.adobe.com

The snap election does provide one particular lesson: democracy is always fragile.

“In France, like Australia, we’ve been very lucky to live in safe country with reliable democratic institutions, but we also take this for granted,” Fathi says. “If you look at the larger part of history, democracy is the exception rather than the norm.”

“I don’t think anyone is thinking about this at the moment, because everybody’s got their head on the election and on the immediacy of that political crisis, but for France, the problem may be more structural than political.

“A lot of the frustration of the French may not be able to be solved through political leadership, regardless of the colour of the government. It may mean that the French need to think harder about the democratic institutions as they are.”

Top image: President Macron walks along a cobblestone street. Photo: Antonin Albert/shutterstock.com

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