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Marine Le Pen, French far-right leader and far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally - RN) party candidate, reacts on stage after partial results in the first round of the early French parliamentary elections in Henin-Beaumont, France. Image Credit: Reuters

France’s political landscape is undergoing a seismic shift. In a dramatic turn of events, the far-right National Rally (RN) led by Marine Le Pen has made unprecedented gains in the first round of a snap parliamentary election.

This outcome not only sends shock waves through France but also reverberates across Europe, raising significant questions about the future of the European Union and the stability of its member states.

The immediate market reaction has been telling. French credit default swaps have soared to a post-2020 record of 39 points, reflecting investor anxiety over the potential for increased political instability.

Euro area spreads have widened, and commentators are quick to blame the RN’s rise for this market turmoil. However, it’s crucial to recognise that these economic tremors are also a symptom of deeper, structural issues within the French economy and the broader Eurozone.

President Emmanuel Macron is now facing the most significant challenge of his political career. The centrist leader, who once seemed to embody the promise of a united and forward-looking Europe, is now grappling with the reality of a fractured political landscape.

Thomas Piketty, the renowned French economist, has pointed out one of Macron’s critical missteps: his neglect and vilification of France’s left wing. Piketty argues that Macron owes his presidency to the left-wing voters who supported him against Le Pen in the 2017 and 2022 elections.

Yet, instead of fostering an inclusive political environment, Macron distanced himself from these crucial allies, which has now come back to haunt him.

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A precarious hold

The RN’s surge in the first round of voting underscores a broader trend of rising populism and nationalism across Europe. With a significant voter turnout, Le Pen’s anti-immigration nationalists have capitalised on widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Macron’s decision to dissolve parliament and seek a mandate through a hastily organised three-week campaign has spectacularly backfired. His centrist coalition finished a distant third behind the RN and the left-wing New Popular Front (NFP), leaving Macron with a precarious hold on fewer than 100 of the 249 seats his coalition previously held in the 577-member National Assembly.

In his post-election address, Macron called for a “broad rally in support of republican and democratic candidates” to counter the extreme right. However, this plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The political momentum is now with the RN, and Macron’s options are limited and fraught with uncertainty.

If no party secures an absolute majority, Macron might attempt to govern through a fragile coalition, forming case-by-case majorities. However, this approach is inherently unstable and could quickly unravel, especially if faced with a no-confidence vote over the budget in the autumn.

Alternatively, Macron might consider appointing a non-party government of technocrats with a limited agenda. While this could temporarily stave off chaos, it is unlikely to be a sustainable solution given the current climate of political discontent. The stark reality is that France appears to be on a path toward either an immediate RN government or a period of instability followed by another election, which could ultimately lead to an RN victory.

Heart of European project

The prospect of Le Pen gaining power has profound implications not just for France but for the entire European Union. France has historically been at the heart of the European project. A shift towards far-right governance could undermine the EU’s cohesion and stability. As one observer put it, “If that heart doesn’t beat robustly, the EU could have a heart attack.”

Reflecting on this potential shift, Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s socialist prime minister, offered a cautionary note. He described the French election results as a warning and emphasised the importance of strong left-wing unity and governance.

Sánchez highlighted that the best way to counter the far right is through progressive policies that address the needs and concerns of the populace, thereby debunking the misinformation and fearmongering often propagated by nationalist movements.

The rise of the RN and the potential collapse of Macron’s centrist agenda also highlight the failure of previous European leadership to adequately respond to the challenges facing the continent.

Angela Merkel’s German government, for instance, is widely seen as having missed opportunities to support Macron’s vision for a more integrated and resilient Europe following his 2017 victory. This lack of support has contributed to the current crisis, leaving Macron isolated as he confronts a resurgent far-right.

As France stands at this critical juncture, the choices made in the coming weeks will have long-lasting repercussions. The country must decide whether to embrace a future defined by division and nationalism or to strive for a more inclusive and united path. The implications of this decision will be felt far beyond France’s borders, shaping the future of the European Union and its member states.

In the end, the path forward for France and Europe may lie in finding a renewed commitment to democratic values and social justice.

By addressing the underlying economic and social issues that have fuelled the rise of populism, and by fostering a political environment that values inclusivity and cooperation, there is hope that the tide can be turned. The journey will be challenging, but it is a necessary one if Europe is to remain a beacon of stability and progress in an increasingly turbulent world.

Ahmad Nazir is a UAE based freelance writer, with a degree in education from the Université de Montpellier in Southern France