_ Jacques Sapir, Director of studies, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS); head, Centre d’Étude des Modes d’Industrialisation (CEMI-EHESS). Paris, 31 May 2019.
The May 26th European elections in France reflected mainly French issues. This focus on national concerns was true too in other countries. This is the first lesson that can be learned. We don’t have any shared European political framework and the political will of European peoples is still defined by the framework of the European nation-state. Nevertheless, these elections offer hints about possible future changes.
In France, the elections were of course, a vote on the President’s balance sheet. This explains why the figure for abstention was much lower than in 2014. Although the working classes and young people largely abstained from voting, the participation rate has risen by almost 8 percentage points; it had been exceptionally low in 2014. But these elections, of course, took place throughout the EU, as previously stated. From this point of view, the results in Italy and the United Kingdom were also significant. In the United Kingdom, they reflected the revolt of a part of the electorate against what was felt as a “betrayal” of BREXIT by the conservatives in power. In Italy, the European elections largely turned out to be a referendum for or against Matteo Salvini and Lega.
In Italy, the campaign was quite violent, at least in the media. The comparison between Salvini and Mussolini, and even Hitler, was one of the great arguments of the centre-left. This reflects the tension this election has aroused. However, more than 30.5% of voters backed Lega, which is allied in the current government with the Five-Star Group (M5S). Lega obtained only 17% of the vote in the Italian parliamentary election of spring 2018, and can be considered the net winner of the European parliamentary elections. The Democratic Party (PD) suffered a clear defeat; its share of the vote fell to 22%. As for the M5S, the other party of the government, it got only 19.2% of the votes; it won around 35% of the vote in last year’s elections. Let us add that the third party of the populist block in power, Fratelli d’Italia, obtained 6.4%. The populist alliance is therefore largely in the majority.
Very clearly, the centre-left as well as the centre-right (Berlusconi’s Forza Italia got only 8.8%) have waned. The aggressive campaign of the centre-left has not paid off. Far from leading to a “demonization” of Lega, it seems on the contrary to have strengthened its support. The consequences of this changeover are very important.
In the alliance currently in power between the M5S and the Lega, the former had the advantage. It could, with more than 30% of the electorate it represented, threaten at any time to switch to an alliance with the PD to contain Lega’s ambitions. But, reduced to less than 20%, it can no longer play this game. Of course, we are talking today about elections to the European Parliament. But, everyone will understand that what is really in question is the possibility of early elections. In the event that the alliance currently in power is renewed or even extended to Fratelli d’Italia, it could potentially win 56% of the votes. What is more, with potentially over 30% of votes, Lega could hope to benefit largely from the majority mechanism that exists in Italian electoral law, which is a combination of proportional voting and a winner-take-all system. Very concretely, this means that if a general election were held this autumn, the three parties would have the requisite majority to change the Constitution, diminish the powers of the President of the Republic, and perhaps break with the EU mechanisms that were enshrined in the Constitution. The fact that Matteo Salvini has claimed the European elections gave his party a mandate to renegotiate the financial deal with the European Commission could be seen as a harbinger of things to come.
In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s victory and the collapse of the traditional parties
The situation is no less interesting in the United Kingdom. The BREXIT Party, created by Nigel Farage, the former leader of UKIP, outperformed the Conservatives and Labour with more than 31.5% of the vote. It’s a historical upset. It shows that some of the voters have revolted against the attitude of outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May, who sought to drown the BREXIT fish in the water of the Brussels Commission.
The results of these elections reveal three important changes. The first is the regular rise of the BREXIT Party, which proceeded until the day after the local elections, to the detriment of the Conservatives. The fall of the latter, which was spectacular to the point that the Liberals-Democrats outperformed them, means that the BREXIT Party has siphoned the vote of the “brexiters” of the Conservative Party. But since the local elections, it has seemed in fact that Labour Party votes have, at least in part, made their way to the BREXIT Party. The haemorrhage is less serious than for the conservatives. It is sensitive, however. This is the second notable change. The capacity of the BREXIT Party to attract a proportion of the electorate which normally votes for Labour signifies the appeal of the positioning adopted by Nigel Farage. The third important change is the rise of the Lib-Dems, which, as noted, have eclipsed the Conservatives and are now hot on the heels of Labour.
Are these results transferable to the general elections? Farage has clearly indicated his willingness to present candidates in general elections that now seem inevitable in the United Kingdom, which could take place in autumn. The challenge for him is to maintain his position as the voice of the populist right, if he hopes to distance himself from the Conservative Party and bite on Labour. As we know, the voting system in the United Kingdom favours bipartisanship, even if it isn’t necessarily a golden rule. The possibility that Nigel Farage and the BREXIT Party will replace the Conservatives is not non-existent. If that were to happen, given the amplifying effects of the one-round voting system, it’s a safe bet that local Conservative officials would join Farage and his party could replace the Conservatives, which would then be reduced to the handful of deputies who support Remain. For Labour, the prospect is none other than being caught between the hammer of Farage and the anvil of the Lib-Dems. Very clearly, given the possibilities that were reflected in the European election, there is indeed an accelerated reconfiguration of political life in the United Kingdom.
France: Emmanuel Macron’s failure
In France, elections saw the relative success of the National Rally (RN), which beat the En Marche-Democratic Movement-Renaissance bloc of Nathalie Loiseau. The relative failure of this list of candidates, despite the active support of the president, is noteworthy. Emmanuel Macron had indeed committed beyond all decency, in view of his function, to the En Marche list. This commitment, while in many ways scandalous, did not spare him from failure. This failure is personal and will bear heavily on his ability to revive his policy. Emmanuel Macron has been put on the defensive, and stands a little more discredited, whether one looks at the national level or at the European level. The success of the National Rally list, led by Jordan Bardella, is undeniable. However, this is by no means a triumph. The RN struggled to regain the 24% of the vote it obtained in 2014.
The failure of the En Marche list of Nathalie Loiseau is, however, relative for two reasons: the first is the score: with 22.4, it can’t be argued that Macron’s party has collapsed. The second reason is the collapse, on the other hand, of Les Républicains (LR), led in the European elections by François-Xavier Bellamy. With slightly more than 8%, France’s traditional conservative party came in fourth place, calling into question the leadership of LR president Laurent Wauquiez. This defeat can be explained by the polarisation between the National Rally and En Marche, which manifested itself in the last weeks of the campaign. A certain number of LR voters were on these two lists, and there were probably more on that of En Marche than on that of Les Républicains. This is not surprising. Emmanuel Macron became, through the Yellow Vests movement, the symbol of the party of order. It was therefore natural that many right-wing voters, many of whom provided votes to François Fillon in the first round of the 2017 Presidential elections, were among those who voted for En Marche.
The consequences of this situation are contradictory. Emmanuel Macron has certainly limited the damage thought done to his new party and can claim victory in the short term. However, his potential tank of voices has shrunk and he’s run out of his reserves right. This will have consequences for the upcoming municipal elections in 2020, because the Republicans can only hope to rebound by being in an outright opposition, presumably opposed to Emmanuel Macron. However, it is through these elections that En Marche’s capacity to take root locally will be entrenched or lost, which is a condition for its perpetuation of Emmanuel Macron’s ability to represent himself in 2022.
The success of EELV, the failure of France Insoumise
Or – French Greens succeed, France Insoumise effectively bows out
However, there were other important elements in the May 26th elections. One is the formidable showing of “Europe Ecology – The Greens” (EELV), a success which is indisputable. The Greens’ list of candidates placed third, with more than 13% of the vote. However, it must be remembered that the European elections have always been receptive to Green parties. Their relative success on Sunday wasn’t the best ever achieved by environmentalists. Another big surprise during these elections was the collapse (there is no other word), of the left-wing party France Insoumise (France Unbowed) led by Manon Aubry: with just over 6.5%, on par with the Socialist list, France Insoumise recorded a major defeat, a master disaster. Faring even worse was the communist party list (PCF) led by Yan Brossat, which obtained around 2.4% of the vote.
The causes are known. Just as in Spain, where the left-wing party Podemos is paying for its hesitations and political uncertainty, France Insoumise is paying dearly for the change in the party line that has occurred since late spring 2018, which has resulted in unworthy apparatus manoeuvres, and the exclusion or voluntary departure of so-called “left-wing sovereignists.” The abandonment of the concept of a “gathering of the people,” which had led Jean-Luc Mélenchon to obtain nearly 20% of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, was the cause of this collapse. In the declaration of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the evening on May 26, one could hear in hesitant phrasing the extreme disarray of the factual leader of the party. France Unbowed will not be able to survive without doing some basic soul-searching, involving both a readjustment of its party platform, which should revert to what it was in the spring 2017, as well as a form of democratic institutionalization with clear and transparently operating structures.
The main problem is that of the political platform. Some people, who dream only of returning France Insoumise to the anodyne positions of the pro-EU left, have understood it well; we could see this as the results arrived on election night. But the question of internal democracy and transparency has also played a role in this failure. France Insoumise has not shown its best face over the last 9 months. It is, however, to be feared that the victory of the National Rally will lead some France Unbowed party leaders to resort to tired “anti-fascist” rhetoric, while the logical move would be to challenge the grip of the National Rally on the masses by mirroring their independence-minded aspirations and reviving the theme of sovereignty.
The political upheavals brought about by these elections will be significant. If the main points of fracture are evident in Italy and the United Kingdom, the weakening of Emmanuel Macron, but also the current collapse of the centre-right and the extreme left suggests significant changes in France.