The Right Rises (Again) in France

Bro Adams
5 min read4 days ago
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella of the Rassemblement National. AP Photo/Thomas Padilla

Monday, June 10, 2024

In the small village in southern France where my wife and I spend six months of the year, voters have elected the same mayor for nearly three decades. He runs as an independent, but his values and policies are squarely social-democratic. And popular. His aggressive affordable housing and economic development initiatives are credited with making the village one of the most attractive and stable in the region. In the last two municipal elections (2014 and 2020), the mayor ran unopposed.

Considering this relatively progressive political history, it was notable that in yesterday’s European parliamentary elections in our village, the list of candidates headed by Jordan Bardella of the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) won 33.6 percent of the vote, far exceeding the tally of the lists headed by President Emmanuel Macron’s proxy Valerie Hayer (14.4 percent) and the socialist Raphaël Glucksmann (13.5 percent). These numbers are nearly identical to those registered across France, and their meaning is as unsettling as it is portentous. Marine Le Pen’s nationalist and xenophobic Rassemblement National, recently spruced up by the handsome and impeccably dressed Bardella, is now the most powerful political party in France.

This fact has enormous implications for the country, but it also raises troubling questions about the future of Europe as a political, cultural, and economic entity. Notwithstanding the French results, the dominant centrists in the European parliament appear to have maintained, for the time being, most of their previous numerical advantage. But the rightwing surge in France and Germany, Europe’s two most powerful countries, will surely entail a rightward shift in the economic and political business of the union. And then there’s Putin, the war in Ukraine, and the prospect of a Trump victory in the American presidential election in November. And topping it all off, the painful irony of the timing of these elections, staged a mere three days after the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the invasion in Normandy, where the blood of American and allied soldiers secured the global political order that made the European Union possible.

What happened? Like all major political shifts, the recent gains of the RN are overdetermined, fueled by a toxic combination of lingering annoyance over the management of COVID, the weakness of traditional French political parties, widespread irritation with the EU’s policies and complex bureaucracy, immigration, the exportation of traditional manufacturing, and Emmanuel Macron’s deep unpopularity, among other factors. But none is more important than immigration. That story, too, is long and complicated, going back to France’s colonial regimes, the rapid growth of its Muslim population, and the macabre and devastating acts of terrorism the country has experienced of late. The recently high numbers of both legal and illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, reaching record levels in 2023, served as a tipping point. As in the United States, conservatives in France found ways of tying immigration to latent strains of French nationalism and to fears that immigrants are taking unfair advantage of social services. And as in the United States, liberals in France (and elsewhere in Europe) misunderstood and underestimated the domestic political implications of the growing anxiety about the influx of immigrants.

What’s next? As soon as the election results were known, Emmanuel Macron announced his intent to dissolve the National Assembly and hold new elections, a seldom-used power granted to the president by the constitution of the Fifth Republic. Is Macron calling the people’s bluff? (“Do you really want Jordan Bardella to be your prime minister?”) Much of the post-announcement commentary has suggested as much, and perhaps that’s right. If so, it’s a risky move. One thinks back to Brexit. Has Macron offered the RN an unexpected gift? And is his decision motivated as much by personal pique as grand strategy? We’ll know in a few weeks. The first round of the legislative elections is scheduled for June 30.

On the morning of the D-Day commemoration, I happened to run into the mayor of our village near his office in the town square. He greeted me and said, “Today is an important day.” “Yes,” I replied, “and more important now than ever.” The night before the elections, the village staged a grand fête celebrating the 100th anniversary of its very successful wine cooperative, perhaps the single most important economic engine in the community. The mayor was there, of course, greeting his fellow citizens and celebrating this important anniversary. We spoke. I asked him about the elections the next day, and he looked at me worriedly, predicting a substantial RN victory. He then turned the tables, asking me about Trump. “Can you explain how it is that Trump is now leading the polls in the United States? Tell me how this is possible?” It’s a not uncommon question. The French are astonished (who is not?) by Trump’s style, first and foremost — his vulgarity, mendacity, meanness. Quite apart from his politics, they want to know how this man, now a convicted felon, and after all that has happened, could return to the American presidency. I responded that the Trump phenomenon is as much about political culture as it is about bedrock political interests. This response seemed in no way to resolve the mystery.

Trump is a unique political creature in many ways, but the economic and political conditions of his ascent are not so different from those that pertain to Marine Le Pen’s and Jordan Bardella’s recent successes in France. Both countries have long and vexing histories of nationalism, xenophobia, and racism. Globalization has wreaked havoc in traditional industrial communities, once the bastion of liberal political parties and movements. Massive economic and social disruptions in nearby parts of the world — Central and South America in the case of the United States, the Middle East and North Africa in the case of France — have put enormous pressures on borders and raised almost impossible questions of how to deal with massive influxes of immigrants and asylum seekers. Populist, anti-elite impulses, differently expressed, certainly, but with similar political consequence, run rampant. And in both countries, democratic values seem increasingly in peril. France and the United States have perhaps never been so alike, despite their glaring differences.

Sources

Romain Imbach, Pierre Breteau, et Manon Romain, « Européennes 2024 : douze cartes qui montrent l’évolution des principaux partis en France, » Le Monde, 10 juin, 2024.

Julia Pascal, « Immigration : des flux en hausse, tirés par les étudiants, les salariés et les réfugiés », Le Monde, 25 janvier, 2024.

Aurelien Breedan, “What to Know About France’s Snap Parliamentary Elections,” The New York Times, June 10, 2024.

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Bro Adams

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.