- - Tuesday, February 19, 2019

PARIS — With anti-establishment yellow vests protesting in the streets in Paris and anti-immigration populists energized across Europe, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen is banking on “far better results” for her party and its fellow euroskeptic allies in EU parliamentary elections this spring.

Talking to a small group of reporters on Friday, Ms. Le Pen, who heads the renamed National Rally party, insists the political winds are shifting across the continent.

She said the May elections will profoundly shift the political balance in the European Union as voters grow increasingly disillusioned with globalization and what she sees as its failure to bring economic benefits to ordinary people.

“The nationalist parties, the patriotic parties, the parties that want less European Union and are critical of the EU, will record far better results than five years ago,” she said at her party’s headquarters in Nanterre, near Paris.

“Will it be enough to form a majority in the European Parliament? I don’t assume anything,” she said. “But the way the European Parliament works, the way the European Council works, will be upset by this powerful upswing.”

Although the parliament is often dismissed as a toothless debating society, the elections across 27 EU member states will be the most closely watched in decades. Polls suggest that far-right and euroskeptic parties are set to make significant gains. It will also be the first post-Brexit vote, with the United Kingdom slated to leave the EU one way or another by March 29.

The populist coalition that runs Italy’s government is already campaigning hard for like-minded parties across the EU — from France’s yellow vests and Spain’s new Vox party to conservative, immigration-skeptic governments across Eastern Europe — to coordinate strategies, online presences and media messages for the campaign. EU legislators do have some powers, including making EU-wide law, ratifying international agreements and, crucially, determining whether EU countries are upholding the bloc’s core values such as an independent judiciary and the rights of minorities and migrants.

Early projections say the populist euroskeptic parties could win up to a third of the seats in the next EU parliament, profoundly altering the balance of power.

Perhaps even more significant is that the main center-left and center-right blocs, which together have constituted a majority of delegates for some four decades, are projected to lose that majority this spring, falling from a combined 53 percent to 45 percent.

Pro-Europe parties in Italy and elsewhere are finally mobilizing against the populists, Miriam Sorace, a politics fellow at the European Institute, wrote in a recent analysis of the elections. She said the stakes this spring are rising steadily.

“Rocked by forces that want, respectively, less and more Europe, the 2019 election results have thus the potential to define the nature of the EU for years to come,” she said.

As the head of France’s leading opposition party, Ms. Le Pen is pitching her campaign as a vote against President Emmanuel Macron, the upstart pro-European centrist who defeated her by a landslide in the runoff of the presidential election in 2017. Many see Mr. Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the leading champions of a globalist, Brussels-dominated EU.

Despite suffering a severe slump in popularity as the grassroots yellow vest protests flared across the country late last year, Mr. Macron has managed to claw back some approval. His rating in January rose to 27 percent, up 4 percentage points from the previous month.

Bandwagon effect

Political leaders such as Ms. Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far-left France Unbowed have tried to jump onto the yellow vests’ bandwagon without much success. The lack of appeal of these two parties, which usually attract voters who feel marginalized, signals that the yellow vest protesters are wary of the political establishment.

“The influence of nationalist parties, first in Eastern Europe and then in Italy, which shares a border with France, has been increasing. This cannot be ignored,” said Paris-based lawyer and political commentator Arnaud Touati. “And some of the yellow vests’ claims, such as immigration, are the same as those of the National Rally.”

At the same time, he noted, polls “show a tie between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, so it’s not ‘game over’ yet.”

The amorphous, decentralized yellow vest rebellion was sparked by rising dissatisfaction among the rural poor and small-business owners, as well as laborers and public-sector employees disillusioned by mainstream parties’ policies. Initially demonstrating against rising fuel taxes, the protesters adopted the high-visibility yellow vests that all French drivers are required to carry in their vehicles.

Faced with repeated demonstrations, a rattled Mr. Macron launched a “Grand National Debate,” a three-month nationwide series of consultations with the public aimed at calming anti-government protests and convincing them that he is not out of touch with French people.

The move seems to be working. A recent Elabe poll shows for the first time that 56 percent of the French think the yellow vests should call off their often-disruptive weekly protests. According to January’s Ifop-Fiducial poll, Mr. Macron’s governing En Marche political movement has once again overtaken Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally in support in the European elections.

Still, the far-right nationalist leader is convinced that France’s political crisis goes far beyond the yellow vest protests.

“The yellow vests … are the expression of the lower middle classes who have been squeezed by spectacular tax hikes in the last 10 years,” she said. “There is also a malaise, the feeling that they are not represented by political institutions in our country.”

After the shake-up of the French political landscape with the 2017 elections, when the Socialist Party and the mainstream conservatives reported heavy losses, Ms. Le Pen insisted she is not afraid of the emerging movement and the voting intentions of its supporters.

Some yellow vest leaders hope to enter politics by running in the European elections in May. For the most part, the leaderless movement remains divided into several factions that display often diverging views that range from far left to far right.

Ms. Le Pen said some may end up voting for her party, some will prefer Mr. Melenchon and others will abstain.

Cajoling disillusioned voters into the ballot box will be a key preview of French national elections. Recent polls have been marred by low turnout rates, particularly among the young and the less-affluent.

“I’m not sure I will vote this time around. I still haven’t made up my mind,” said Agnes, a young mother of two from Nanterre who declined to give her last name. “The yellow vest movement has given voice to ordinary people who struggle to make ends meet, but I don’t think these elections will change anything for us.”

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