February 14, 2024 - 10:30am

Populist parties traditionally do very well at European parliamentary elections. Some of the 400 million people registered to vote across the continent use them as a chance to let off steam, knowing that the representatives they return to Brussels and Strasbourg are far less important than their domestic politicians.  

This always produces some of the most startlingly ironic results in global democracy, such as France’s once deeply Eurosceptic Rassemblement National (RN) gaining far more seats in the European Parliament than the National Assembly in Paris. It was the same with the British Brexit Party, which took up seats abroad but not in the House of Commons. 

Such oddities did not provide a route to significant power, but instead confirmed the status of some parties as loud protest groups, ready to express their cynicism and anger at every opportunity. 

Now, however, new polling data suggests that groupings such as the RN and their allies are well on their way to recording their highest ever result in June’s European Parliamentary elections, and the implications are far-reaching. This is because pan-European problems, such as immigration and Net Zero, are dominating the political agenda, and national governments are struggling to cope. 

The botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the Ukraine war, and the escalating farming crisis are all examples of floundering by incompetent administrations. In France, President Emmanuel Macron can no longer rely on a majority in parliament as, like everywhere else, the cost-of-living situation spirals out of control. Macron will have served two terms by 2027, and is thus constitutionally bound to step down, but many feel his brand of liberalism is long past its sell-by date anyway. 

Instead, the RN is tipped to win 33% of the French vote for the European Parliament this summer, while the Reconquête party headed by media polemicist Éric Zemmour is on 6%, according to a Portland Communications poll. Such a result — approaching 40% of the vote — would put the hard-Right well ahead of the centrist Ensemble! group. The latter includes Macron’s Renaissance party and is polling at just 14%.

Similar results were recorded in Germany, Italy, Holland and Poland, using the January poll that quizzed 1,034 in representative national samples. In the case of Germany – a country where the resurgence of extreme nationalism naturally causes particular alarm – Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is projected to win 17% of the vote, which would be a 6% rise on 2019. 

Pessimism about the future naturally plays into the hands of hard-Right parties, which appeal to people who feel alienated and ignored within a rapidly changing world. European elections are still seen as a chance for voters to vent their frustration, but the latest polling points to far more significant developments. If the result for Jordan Bardella’s RN was replicated at national level, for example, then Marine Le Pen, the party’s likely presidential candidate, would easily defeat Macron’s successor in 2027

A coalition with potential allies, such as Zemmour and members of the increasingly radical Républicains — a party once made up of far more restrained Gaullist conservatives — and Le Pen entering the Élysée Palace as head of state at her fourth attempt looks like even more of a possibility. The shock of Donald Trump’s victory in the US in 2016, and potentially 2024, is being spoken about as an example of what might happen in France.

One of the great weaknesses of hard-Right parties in the past has been their inability to cooperate with each other but, as the world faces up to ever more unifying problems, this could be about to change. 

Nabila Ramdani is a French journalist and academic of Algerian descent, and author of Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic.