Europe

Far-right's major gains in EU election hands stunning defeat to leaders of France and Germany

The election's results will likely make Europe's far right a major player in the bloc's policies ranging from the economy to climate to the war in Ukraine.

President of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) Manfred Weber (L) looks at as European Commission President and EPP lead candidate Ursula von der Leyen
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Far-right parties rattled the traditional powers in the European Union and made major gains in parliamentary elections Sunday, dealing an especially humiliating defeat to French President Emmanuel Macron.

On a night where the 27-member bloc palpably shifted to the right, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni more than doubled her seats in the EU parliament. And even if the Alternative for Germany extreme right party was hounded by scandal involving candidates, it still rallied enough seats to sweep past the slumping Social Democrats of Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Sensing a threat from the far right, the Christian Democrats of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had already shifted further to the right on migration and climate ahead of the elections — and were rewarded by remaining by far the biggest group in the 720-seat European Parliament and de-facto brokers of the ever expanding powers of the legislature.

Undoubtedly however, the star on a stunning electoral night was the National Rally party of Marine Le Pen, dominated the French polls to such an extent that Macron immediately dissolved the national parliament and called for new elections. It was a massive political risk since his party could suffer more losses, hobbling the rest of his presidential term that ends in 2027.

France's President Emmanuel Macron (C) and French President's wife Brigitte Macron (L)
HANNAH MCKAY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
France's President Emmanuel Macron (C) and French President's wife Brigitte Macron (L) exit a polling booth before casting their ballot for the European Parliament election at a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France on June 9, 2024.

Le Pen was delighted to accept the challenge. “We’re ready to turn the country around, ready to defend the interests of the French, ready to put an end to mass immigration,” she said, echoing the rallying cry of so many far-right leaders in other countries who were celebrating substantial wins.

Her National Rally won over 30% or about twice as much as Macron’s pro-European centrist Renew party that is projected to reach less than 15%.

Macron acknowledged the thud of defeat. “I’ve heard your message, your concerns, and I won’t leave them unanswered,” he said, adding that calling a snap election only underscored his democratic credentials.

In Germany, the most populous nation in the 27-member bloc, projections indicated that the AfD overcame a string of scandals involving its top candidate to rise to 16.5%, up from 11% in 2019. In comparison, the combined result for the three parties in the German governing coalition barely topped 30%.

Scholz suffered such an ignominious fate that his long-established Social Democratic party fell behind the extreme-right Alternative for Germany, which surged into second place. “After all the prophecies of doom, after the barrage of the last few weeks, we are the second strongest force,” a jubilant AfD leader Alice Weidel said.

The four-day polls in the 27 EU countries were the world's second-biggest exercise in democracy, behind India's recent election.

Overall across the EU, two mainstream and pro-European groups, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, remained the dominant forces. The gains of the far right came at the expense of the Greens, who were expected to lose about 20 seats and fall back to sixth position in the legislature. Macron's pro-business Renew group also lost big.

For decades, the European Union, which has its roots in the defeat of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, confined the hard right to the political fringes. With its strong showing in these elections, the far right could now become a major player in policies ranging from migration to security and climate.

To stave that off, von der Leyen offered to build a coalition with the Social Democrats and the pro-business Liberals. Since the Christian Democrats won seats while the two others lost, von der Leyen can do so from a position of strength.

“We are by far the strongest party, We are the anchor of stability,” von der Leyen regaled. Reflecting on the rise of the far-right and a good showing of the far-left, von der Leyen added that “the result comes with great stability for the parties in the center. We all have interest in stability and we all want a strong and effective Europe”

In the legislature, provisional results showed that the Christian Democrats would have 189 seats, up 13, the Social Democrats 135, down 4 and the pro-business Renew group 83, down 19. The Greens slumped to 53, down 18.

Germany, traditionally a stronghold for environmentalists, exemplified the humbling of the Greens, who were predicted to fall from 20% to 12%. With further losses expected in France and elsewhere, the defeat of the Greens could well have an impact on the EU's overall climate change policies, still the most progressive across the globe.

The center-right Christian Democratic bloc of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, which already weakened its green credentials ahead of the polls, dominated in Germany with almost 30%, easily beating Scholz's Social Democrats, who fell to 14%, even behind the AfD.

The electoral shift to the right could make it harder for the EU to pass legislation, and decision-making could at times be paralyzed in the world's biggest trading bloc.

EU lawmakers, who serve a five-year term, have a say in issues from financial rules to climate and agriculture policy. They approve the EU budget, which bankrolls priorities including infrastructure projects, farm subsidies and aid delivered to Ukraine. And they hold a veto over appointments to the powerful EU commission.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden met with more than two dozen American veterans near Omaha Beach on Thursday to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

The elections come at a testing time for voter confidence in a bloc of some 450 million people. Over the last five years, the EU has been shaken by the coronavirus pandemic, an economic slump and an energy crisis fueled by the biggest land conflict in Europe since World War II. But political campaigning often focuses on issues of concern in individual countries rather than on broader European interests.

Since the last EU election in 2019, populist or far-right parties now lead governments in three nations — Hungary, Slovakia and Italy — and are part of ruling coalitions in others including Sweden, Finland and, soon, the Netherlands. Polls give the populists an advantage in France, Belgium, Austria and Italy.

“Right is good,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who leads a stridently nationalist and anti-migrant government, told reporters after casting his ballot. “To go right is always good. Go right!”

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Associated Press writers Sylvain Plazy in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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