21 Jun 2024, 14:14
Juliette Portala

Would a far-right election victory in France knock down EU’s green hopes?

A populist power grab in Paris could reverberate across the entire EU. Photo: Gustafson Porter Bowman

On the night of the European elections, French president Emmanuel Macron did not wait until the official results were called to announce the dissolution of the country’s parliament and, consequently, to call new elections already by the end of June. The first snap election in more than 25 years has taken many of the president’s political allies and enemies in France and Europe by surprise and opened the door to what could become the country’s first far-right government led by the populist Rassemblement National (RN) party. A power grab akin to the RN’s gains in the EU elections could embolden the party that has slammed the EU Green Deal as a tool of “punitive ecology” that coerces and burdens French citizens. Unless Macron’s centrists and the left find a way to avert a far-right victory, the surprise move could unravel progress in the energy and climate policies of the EU’s second largest economy and weaken ambitions at a critical point in time – even though most people in France wish for more effective climate policies.

[Please note: This article was first published ahead of the first round of the elections.]

With contributions by Claire Stam, Brussels

In a mere five-minute speech, French president Emmanuel Macron threw his country’s political class in turmoil by responding to the defeat of his Renaissance party by the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally – RN) party in the European elections. In his terse address on 9 June, Macron announced that he was dissolving the lower house of the country’s parliament ahead of its five-year term ending in 2027. This meant that for the first time since 1997, a snap election must take place in two rounds within 40 days, on 30 June and 7 July.

In the EU elections, RN candidate Jordan Bardella, a young protégé of party leader Marine Le Pen, obliterated the ruling camp by garnering over 31 percent of the vote, thereby more than doubling its number of voters. The far-right’s influence has thus never been greater in post-war France and Europe, as the RN is sending 30 of France’s 81 MEPs to the European Parliament, making it the biggest delegation ahead of the conservative German CDU/CSU alliance. “I cannot act, at the end of this day, as if nothing had happened,” Macron told citizens after the scale of his party’s loss became clear. “Thereby I dissolve, tonight, the National Assembly.” The French are now called on to elect 577 deputies for the next five years. Macron himself, however, will not have to stand for election again before his term as head of the French state is scheduled to end in three years’ time. In the first ballot, MPs can already gain an absolute majority by receiving more than half of the vote in a constituency – and if no candidate achieves it, gaining a relative majority in the second round is sufficient to win the seat. The party winning an absolute majority in parliament can then pick the prime minister, who acts as head of government, while the president remains France’s head of state. In case of a relative majority, the president gets to pick the prime minister, who could hail from an alliance of several parties and not necessarily from the strongest one.

Energy was still at the heart of the political debates during the EU election campaign: the three main groups in the French snap election race – the far right, the leftist alliance and Macron’s centrist party – all positioned themselves on the matter and, with a view to restoring the French people’s purchasing power, made lowering energy prices a priority. On the other hand, environment-related topics were perceived as lacking from most campaign debates. According to Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, a researcher on French and EU energy policy at the Jacques Delors Institute think tank, they will not be the focus this time either. “The priorities are ​​purchasing power, energy price hikes, and then security and immigration,” he noted. “The transition will likely be relegated to second place” – even if French citizens still consider climate change one of the top issues that the EU is facing. However, the economy’s transformation creates uncertainties and fears that were easily reclaimed by the RN, which surfed on the wave of farmers’ protests in early 2024 to campaign against so-called ‘punitive ecology.’ “So far, none of the progressive forces have been able to argue in a sufficiently convincing manner to counter this discourse,” Nguyen added.

Dissolution - the solution?

At home and abroad, journalists called the president’s snap election decision a “thunderclap,” a “shock move” or an “extreme gamble” that pushed the doors wide open to a far-right success. Macron was said to be “rolling the dice,” “taking a huge risk,” “playing with fire” or even having  “gone crazy.” The French leader is seen to have rushed headfirst into turning the RN’s EU election triumph into a referendum on himself. Opposing parties, left and right, rejoice as they see their hour coming earlier than expected. If one of them wins an absolute majority in the National Assembly (at least 289 seats), a prime minister from its ranks must be appointed, leading to a so-called “cohabitation.” In this power-sharing situation, the president has a secondary role and the National Assembly has the final say on who runs the nation’s domestic, economic and financial affairs. In case of a relative majority, political uncertainty will be France’s new watchword in the coming months.

The day after the snap election was announced, polls predicted that the far-right was set to win but would fall short of an absolute majority in parliament. The upcoming government would thus be compelled to use this opportunity and achieve concrete results in order to prevent the far-right from a full power grab in the 2027 presidential elections, Nguyen stated. “Such a scenario would imply that the transition portfolio returns to the leftists, which would provide a dynamic stimulus.” In case of an absolute majority, “we can expect the unravelling of and opposition to the norms coming from Brussels, which would delay their implementation on the national level,” he argued. “At such stage, it is very clear that we won’t be able to hold on to our climate trajectories on France’s level for 2030.” As a result, this would complicate things for the EU – also because “its disobedience could inspire other populist forces to do the same,” Nguyen said.

The snap elections look set to weaken France's voice in the European Council, the body that brings together the EU’s 27 national governments, as the president and the prime minister might no longer hail from the same party. Moreover, the snap election “takes place during a key phase of negotiations about top jobs and the EU’s future roadmap" for the next five years, explained Neil Makaroff, director of the Brussels think tank Strategic Perspectives. This loss of French influence goes hand in hand with the loss of German influence, following the election defeat for chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) in the EU elections. “Scholz will also not have the same influence within the Council after the weak performance of the SPD," noted Makaroff.

President Macron likely had the time to weigh his interests before dissolving parliament.  Explaining his controversial decision at a conference a few days later, he argued that “when 50 percent of the French vote for the extremes,” leaving the government unchanged would mean “not respecting them.” He called the snap elections a moment of “clarification” at a time of “extremist fever” and assured that he was not planning to hand “the keys to power” to the far right in the next presidential election.

This assertion appears to be weakened by Macron insisting on the threat that “both extremes” represent and railing against “unnatural alliances” among left-of-centre parties that “agree on pretty much nothing.” By dissolving parliament, Macron broke the coalition between centrist parties and the left against the RN, argued analyst Nguyen. “For now, the position in principle is: neither one, nor the other,” he explained. Just like in the EU election, the leader of the EU’s second-biggest economy is being sandwiched between the far-right and the left. By putting the far-right and the far-left on an equal footing, he may have set everyone against himself, Nguyen added. “There will no longer be a systemic logic prevailing in constituencies, but a personal one.”

Left-wing alliance hopeful to fend off RN majority

Immediately after the EU election, the conservative Republicans ousted their leader, Éric Ciotti, after he sparked an outcry by calling for a country-wide political alliance with the RN. But the far-right party might not even need such an alliance: by obtaining the dissolution it had repeatedly been calling for, the party capitalised on Macron’s unpopularity and asserted itself as a credible alternative for the next presidential election.

Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for France’s leftist parties to present a united front. The Socialists, the Greens, the Communists and the left-wing populist France Unbowed all jumped aboard the anti-far-right train and formed a “New Popular Front” – in reference to the French political alliance founded in 1936 to combat fascism. Its precursor, the New Popular Ecological and Social Union (NUPES), had imploded last year due to the polarising tactics of France Unbowed’s leader, three-time hapless presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Colluding with such a figure could disrupt the governing deal that the new alliance found. However, deputy leader François Ruffin asked members of the French left wing: “Do we want to win together or lose separately?”.

After focusing on their differences in the EU election campaign, finding common ground could have proven to be complicated, but a few days of intense negotiations led the leftist alliance to agree a joint “break programme” for the first 100 days of government. The wish list included domestic policy changes regarding purchasing power, wage increases, pension and unemployment reforms, and immigration. “Emmanuel Macron will not have a majority,” said the Ecologists’ party leader, Marine Tondelier. “You know it, we know it, everybody knows it. (…) And so today, it is either the far-right - or us.” The leftist camp could thus count on the support, among others, of the environmental groups, she said. There is, however, no mention of modernising France’s nuclear fleet by the latter, as it remains a divisive subject among its members.

“Greenblaming” of EU Green Deal policies appeals to many voters

Meanwhile, the RN intends to use its newfound political clout to fight against what it calls "punitive ecology" in the form of the European Green Deal. At the EU level, it wants to reverse the decision to ban the sale of new internal combustion vehicles by 2035 – an aim that it shares with the German CDU/CSU. It also wants to abandon the European Commission's "Farm to Fork" strategy, which the French far-right accuses of “deliberately organising the drastic reduction” of France’s agricultural output. Ingratiating itself with the country’s influential farming lobby, the RN argued in a position paper that EU environmental policy embedded in the strategy is “out of touch with reality,” because “the imperative of protecting nature” is taking over “the need to feed the population.”

Known as “greenblaming,” the strategy of the French far-right is to make transition policies – and the whole European Green Deal – the root of all evil by presenting them as detrimental to the French lifestyle. Energy prices are high? Blame the sustainable transition. Farmers are struggling? Blame the proposed reduction in pesticide use. New cars are too expensive? Blame the new environmental norms. Given the EU election results, it appears their climate-relativism appealed to a large number of voters. “We are back to the dilemma ‘end of the world versus end of the month,’ Jacques Delors Institute researcher Nguyen said. Even if the RN's statements suggest a shallow grasp of the climate challenge, “it has understood the French’s preoccupations,” he emphasised. Although their stated aim to dismantle wind farms is currently popular, they may take a step backward once in power, Nguyen added.

But as uncertainties regarding the turnout and motivation of voters are considerable, it is too early to anticipate any outcome. Whether the dissolution is a risky bet or a scheming move, European issues are already yesterday’s news and France has signed up for a messy political landscape, if not a financial crisis.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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