March 5, 2024 - 1:00pm

Marseille

On Sunday, the challenge to the European Union from the resurgent Right became more visible and more threatening. France, if it swings hard Right under the Rassemblement National (RN) as is likely, will swiftly demote the EU and promote state sovereignty. If successful, this would satisfy most Brexiters and allow the UK, retaining independence, to rejoin the Union if voters so wish.

In the vast hall of Marseille’s Palais de Europe on Sunday, 8000 RN supporters offered full-throated support to Marine Le Pen, candidate (fourth time lucky?) for the French presidency in 2027, and for Jordan Bardella. Dubbed Marine’s “Dauphin” by French media, he is a 28-year old political prodigy from a working-class background, the RN’s president and head of its list for European elections in early June.

Of the two leaders, Bardella is the more popular. He was the only politician featured in the top 50 of an annual poll for most favoured public figures — at 30 (Le Pen, 61; President Emmanuel Macron, 63) — raising speculation that the party might prefer him as a more electable presidential candidate than “Chere Marine”. Perhaps to suppress gossip, he paid extravagant thanks to her for his high office, “striving every day to be worthy of your trust”.

Both leaders made the EU the malign centre of their rhetoric: Le Pen called for the European states to “take back the powers that the EU confiscated”. Meanwhile, Bardella said that a “punitive EU should be a coat that protects us, but every day strips us naked, to deliver us to the icy winds of globalisation”. With the RN in government “France will protect its borders.” “On est chez nous!” (we are in our own house!) roared the packed ranks of party supporters. “When Brussels moves against our interests,” he roared back, “we oppose it with the voice of France.”

The party’s enemies, the Dauphin warned, should recognise that much of political Europe is against them. The New Right parties in Italy, Sweden, Hungary, Austria and elsewhere are comrades in the fight for a reduced EU, confined to work with sovereign states.

The RN is a member of the Identity and Democracy group of the EU, with the Italian Lega now part of the governing coalition: its leader, Matteo Salvini, is close to Le Pen. Both have contempt for Brussels and are highly sceptical about providing further aid to Ukraine. The Alternativ fĂŒr Deutschland is also a member: Bardella did not mention the German party, probably because Le Pen had publicly scolded it for being represented at a meeting which discussed large-scale repatriation of Muslims from Germany.

Le Pen now worries that she has not become moderate enough: unlike the RN’s competitor further to the Right, the journalist and ReconquĂȘte founder Éric Zemmour, Le Pen clearly distinguishes between Islamists prone to aggression and Muslims who lead generally peaceful lives, even if often separate from secular French citizens. Zemmour, in testy remarks given to Le Figaro the day after the Marseille rally, wrote that the RN “is becoming more and more fake, because it more and more resembles (Macron)”. Le Pen might be grateful for that terrible insult.

The RN is eight to 10 points ahead of Macron’s Renaissance party in the polls for the European election. The French President, bruised by recent rebarbative contact with inflamed farmers, cuts a reduced figure at home and abroad. Most recently, he was the object of barely concealed exasperation, especially on the part of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, for proposing that Nato troops fight with Ukrainian forces.

Three years is a a long time in politics, and much could change before the European elections in 2027. But a multi-national movement for a return to a Europe of fully sovereign states and a stripped-down Brussels runs strongly. A New Right France implicitly claimed leadership of it in Marseille.


John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.