The State of the European Union, Part 5: La Politique Politicienne

16 February 2024

5. Politics

In a broad survey piece like this, I can’t cover party politics across Europe in any detail. Even summarizing political developments in the countries I follow closely is impossible. Nevertheless, I will venture a few brief remarks, mostly about France, the country I know best.

When I wrote my 2017 chronicle, prior to that year’s presidential election, Macron’s analysis of France’s political dilemma, self-serving though it was, seemed to me not altogether implausible. Because the two dominant parties of that time, the Socialists (PS) and the Republicans (LR), had both moved toward the center over the previous two decades, a new centrist party claiming to be ni droite ni gauche, or perhaps both right and left en même temps, as Macron liked to say, could hope to find a path to victory by drawing support from the right flank of the PS and the left flank of LR. Voters, this argument ran, had tired of the sham competition between two parties that had more in common than their ritual exaggeration of differences for electoral purposes allowed. The novelty of a unified center working against extremes of both left and right might just be the tonic required by a party system that to many voters seemed to deliver nothing more than a choice between bonnet blanc and blanc bonnet.

While not wrong, this analysis failed to reckon with either Macron’s blind spots or the internal dynamics of the two mainstream parties. It is important to recognize that, whatever the merits of the foregoing analysis, Macron’s victory was fortuitous rather than foreordained by convergence around the center: for all the young upstart candidate’s undeniable talents, Fillon would have won had he not fallen victim to scandal. Macron unbalanced both the PS and LR by drawing their more centrist elements into his orbit. The result was that the PS nominated an exceptionally weak candidate (Hamon), hastening its demise into irrelevance. LR actually expelled a number of their most prominent leaders for the crime of joining Macron’s cabinet after his election, thus pushing what remained of the party farther to the right and making it harder and harder to distinguish from Le Pen’s RN.

Some Macron critics blame him for deliberately building up the RN, the better to destroy the right and occupy its former territory once he abandoned the pretense of being neither left nor right. But this argument ignores the many contingencies along the way: the LR rump that remained after the purges of 2017 abandoned all effort to distinguish itself from the RN and began to poach on Le Pen’s territory, implicitly abetting the RN’s efforts to legitimize itself: “dédiabolisation” was the popular phrase for this exorcism of the fascist/collaborationist/OAS devils that were Jean-Marie Le Pen’s legacy to his daughter, who was shrewd enough to recognize the need to call in the ghostbusters. Meloni’s success in Italy shows that this can be a winning strategy. The “fascist” epithet is good for stoking debate among intellectuals, but it no longer means much to large numbers of voters, who see little difference between what a Le Pen or a Meloni says about immigrants and what a Darmanin or Wauquiez says. And when even an authentic centrist like Valérie Pécresse can refer casually to le grand remplacement, invoking the F-word is not likely to be a winning strategy–as Macron, to his credit, has acknowledged. Meanwhile, the Socialists were forced to sell their party headquarters to pay off the deep debt left by Hamon’s dismal showing, while the candidate himself quit to form a new party of his own before retiring from politics altogether.

Because the stars had aligned just right, Macron found himself president. His decisive debate victory over Le Pen and large majority in the National Assembly allowed him to overlook the thinness of his first-round support and lack of an institutionalized political base. He therefore forged ahead with measures such as abolition of the wealth tax that could perhaps be justified on narrow economic grounds but read to many potential supporters as right-wing rather than centrist. The new president’s inability to disguise his disdain for those who were not les premiers de cordée finished off what remained of the left wing’s willingness to grant him the benefit of the doubt. Few compensatory measures were introduced to maintain the appearance of a relatively balanced centrist approach, and nothing was done to establish the Macronist party at the grass-roots level.

The rural/urban split deepened, and the 2022 presidential results showed that the Le Pen threat, far from having been neutralized as it may have appeared in 2017, had only grown stronger as a result of the droitisation of LR. The ensuing legislative election, which left Macron without a majority and brought unprecedented numbers of RN deputies into the Assembly, delivered the coup de grâce to the idea of governing from the center. The Macronist party hopefully renamed itself Renaissance, but the anticipated rebirth arrived still-born. Without a majority, the government was forced to pass measure after measure, including a very contentious retirement reform, by invoking Article 49-3 of the constitution, which allows for rule by fiat. And when it eschews that extraordinary measure, as it did with the just-rejected immigration reform bill, its impotence is plain to see. France thus faces four years of a paralyzed presidency. Some argue that a desperate measure such as dissolution of the National Assembly is called for, but everyone remembers what happened when a frustrated Jacques Chirac took that course three and a half decades ago. With the RN as the likely beneficiary, dissolution now would be even more rash than it was in 1987.

The next major race in France will be the European Parliament elections in the late spring of 2024, and there is every reason to think that the RN will be the big winner. Despite Macron’s lofty rhetoric about the need for European cooperation, Renaissance will have difficulty eliciting any enthusiasm for its ticket. The collapse of the Nupes, unable to unite behind the mercurial Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leaves all the left-wing parties competing with one another for a shrinking segment of the electorate. And with LR increasingly indistinguishable from the RN, whomever the party chooses as tête de liste will easily be outshone even by a candidate as unseasoned and immature as RN president Jordan Bardella.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the Ampel coalition has fallen on hard times. As mentioned, Christian Lindner, struggling to keep his party afloat, has become a difficult partner. The CDU has been rising in the polls under Friedrich Merz, while the AfD continues to make headway, especially in the former East Germany. Die Linke, the party of the left, has splintered, with Sahra Wagenknecht (as discussed in the previous installment of this series) resigning to form her own party, which favors restricted immigration. But the next Bundestag election will not take place until 2025.

In Italy, Giorgia Meloni remains firmly ensconced in power, having “de-demonized” her party even more effectively than Marine Le Pen, with whom she maintains good if somewhat distant relations. Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has, to the astonishment of many, accepted an invitation to appear at the annual gathering of her Fratelli d’Italia party, following in the footsteps of Steve Bannon. Although Meloni and her coalition partner Matteo Salvini differ on support for Ukraine, they have successfully papered over their differences and largely neutralized the opposition, including both the unpredictable Cinque Stelle under Giuseppe Conte and the center-left Partito Democratico under the young and inexperienced Elly Schlein.

In short, the balance of power in the European Parliament is likely to shift from the center-right, where it has lain for decades, toward the populist/nationalist right. This will put the EP at odds with the European Commission and perhaps generate a style of politics that the EU has not seen in a long time, if ever, driven less by bureaucratic negotiation and more by parliamentary bargaining. National elections do have consequences, and it is important to note one development that is a direct result of shifts at the national level: the Peace and Justice party lost in Poland, and the advent of the Donald Tusk government undermined the Poland-Hungary axis that had proved powerful enough to block EU action on a number of issues including Ukraine and Immigration. With Poland back on the “western” side, heads of state were able to force Viktor Orban to withdraw his opposition to renewed funding for Ukraine. Whether this marginalization of Orban can continue after the EP elections remains to be seen.


Europe is presently adrift on shifting tides rather than in control of its direction. At the outset I mentioned two wars, the one in Ukraine and the other in the Middle East, but thus far I have said little about the latter. It nevertheless has the potential to confront Europe with difficult choices in the months and years to come. EU officials are said to have quietly let it be known that the Union cannot possibly foot the bill for the reconstruction of Gaza or the resettlement of its refugees, but it may have no choice but to participate in both. Member state governments were quick to condemn the Hamas attack; their criticism of Israel’s tactics in retaliation has been more muted until recently, but pressure from citizens appalled by the scenes of destruction and humanitarian crisis have changed that. Germany, haunted by its past, has placed draconian restrictions on criticism of Israel, and elsewhere fear of blowback from the destruction of Gaza has led to suppression of pro-Palestinian demonstrations. European voices calling for a cease-fire in Gaza have been growing louder. Just the other day, Elly Schlein called Giorgiia Meloni to propose a joint statement in favor a humanitarian pause, and Meloni agreed. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and the volatile politics of the Middle East may reshape the lineaments of European power. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s threat to withdraw the US nuclear umbrella from “delinquent” NATO members has cast its shadow over the Munich Security Conference, which is meeting as I write these words. The consequences may be profound.

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