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European elections: Was the Ukraine War another big loser?

European elections: Was the Ukraine War another big loser?

Macron is in a tough spot, as is his efforts to bolster France’s role in the conflict, and European defense, too.

Analysis | Europe

France’s President Emmanuel Macron, after suffering a humiliating defeat in the European Parliament elections on June 9, has dissolved the national parliament and called for snap elections on June 30 and July 7. This step will have potentially huge implications for France’s domestic and foreign policies, particularly with respect to its support for Ukraine.

In the European elections, 50% of the French voters participated and delivered a shocking rebuke to the establishment: 37% of the votes went to far-right populist parties, the National Rally and Reconquest, led by Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, respectively. Another 10% landed with the far-left populist La France Insoumise.

By contrast, Macron’s centrist liberal list earned only 14.6% of the vote, less than half of the vote for the National Rally.

There are several possible explanations for Macron’s move. One is that he intends to emulate Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who, faced with the defeat of his Socialists in last year’s local elections, called snap parliamentary elections two months later and managed to hang onto power thanks to an improbable coalition ranging from the far left to right-wing regional nationalists from Catalonia.

Like Sanchez, Macron may be calculating that the specter of “fascism” would mobilize liberal, centrist and leftist voters against Le Pen and deliver him victory. It remains to be seen whether he can pull it off, but Spain, with its troubled history of civil war and Francoist dictatorship, may not serve as a credible blueprint for France, and no right-wing populist party in Spain has ever approached the levels of popularity that the National Rally has in France.

Alternatively, Macron may be setting the National Rally up for legislative victory and the position of prime minister which, according to his possible calculation, would expose the populists’ inexperience and incompetence in governing and exhaust them before the presidential elections in 2027.

Modern French history provides precedents for what is known as “cohabitation” – when the president and prime minister belong to different parties. By virtue of the French constitution, the president has ample powers to sabotage the prime minister, and Macron would certainly be highly incentivized to do so should Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old National Rally candidate, become the one.

Yet calling for elections is a huge gamble that may backfire spectacularly. The sheer scale of Le Pen party’s victory in the European elections – it won in a staggering 93% of French municipalities — places it in a strong position to win a plurality of votes in the National Assembly.

Above all else, the result shows the party’s staying power in French politics; its perennial presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, increased her share of votes from around 34% in 2017 to 41% in 2022. If current trends are not drastically reversed, she could have a decent shot at victory in 2027.

That has major implications for France’s foreign policy, especially for Ukraine. Macron is one of Kyiv’s strongest European supporters, voicing, for example, a readiness to send Western military trainers to Ukraine and, in a dramatic policy shift, calling for permitting Ukraine to strike targets inside Russia with Western weapons.

The impending elections, whatever their outcome, won’t necessarily affect these policies because foreign policy in France is a prerogative of the president, but the sheer complexity and gravity of the war policies promoted by Macron and their implications would presumably require his full attention. Instead, Macron will likely be distracted by the elections that he has called.

In the longer term, a strong right-wing populist presence in the parliament and government may hinder plans for strengthening a common EU security and defense policy, long a major priority for Macron and for the outgoing president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who is hoping to be reappointed to her position for a second five-year term.

As France is the EU’s main military power, Paris’ cooperation is indispensable for making the effort prosper. Doing so, however, will require not only diplomatic support, but also, crucially, financial muscle. Macron is one of the main proponents of the EU joint borrowing scheme to boost defense spending in response to the war in Ukraine. This spending by France would have to be subject to parliamentary approval.

While Le Pen has softened her Russia-friendly image of the 2010s and offered clear support for Ukraine, the sheer size and scale of Ukraine’s military and reconstruction needs would require a strong national consensus to continue providing Kyiv with the assistance it requires for an indefinite period of time. Since Ukraine’s reconstruction needs alone run around $500 billion, the parliaments of EU member states will inevitably have a say in the disbursement of assistance.

A right-wing populist-dominated French parliament and government may not be fully forthcoming.

Even if Ukraine enjoys stable support for now, how long it may endure and whether it will extend to a post-war stage remains uncertain, particularly given Le Pen’s past reluctance to back Kyiv. Moreover, given France’s status as a nuclear power and self-sufficiency in terms of its own defense, Macron’s rhetoric about the existential stakes involved in Ukraine may ring hollow to much of the French electorate, and certainly the more nationalist part of it.

Another long-term implication of Le Pen’s ascendancy for Ukraine is the additional uncertainty it will bring to Ukraine’s aspirations for EU membership. The French constitution itself is a hurdle — any new EU enlargement must be approved by a referendum or by three fifths of both houses of parliament.

While skepticism of EU enlargement in France is by no means limited to the populist right, the right has certainly been hostile to the group’s expansion. Nationalism is part of the reason, but so is money: according to Bruegel, a Belgium-based think-tank, Kyiv’s potential accession could cost the EU between $119 billion and $146 billion, including $92 billion from the common agriculture policy (the EU’s subsidies to the farmers), of which France is a key beneficiary. And all that doesn’t include Ukraine’s $500bn reconstruction bill.

It remains to be seen whether Macron’s gamble with snap elections will pay off, but it certainly risks weakening Ukraine’s cause – particularly if the populist right will manage to maintain the momentum it gained by crushing Macron’s party in last week’s European elections.

Paris, France, 2-16-2024 : The President of France Emmanuel Macron welcomes the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky at the Palais de l’Elysée in Paris. (Albert Antonin/Shutterstock)

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