Marine Le Pen, May 2012 Marine Le Pen, May 2012. Photo: Blandine Le Cain / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Kevin Ovenden analyses the European elections results, and argues for a united left against the rise of the far-right 

The most significant and consequential result from the European Parliament elections across each of the EU’s 27 member states is the far-right party of Marine Le Pen topping the poll in France. 

It tipped President Macron, whose party won just half of the fascistic National Rally’s 30%, to dissolve the National Assembly and to call snap parliamentary elections in three weeks. France and Britain now go to the polls at the same time. 

His aim is clear. In the shock of Le Pen’s European victory – which points to her serious chance to win the presidential election in three years’ time – Macron hopes that he can drive to the polls the majority of France still opposed to her. 

It is an enormous gamble that underlines the fragility of the European political system. 

The liberal prime minister in neighbouring Belgium has resigned after a surge by the far right. It includes a new formation less hampered by connotations with violence. But there has also been a welcome advance by the radical left Workers Party. 

These developments underscore the political volatility and polarisation across Europe, despite the triumphalist and cliched claims from the centre right and centre left that ‘the centre has held again’. 

European elections are a collection of votes in different national political realities. There is always variation and we should be careful about looking for overall trends. 

Nevertheless, some things are clear. There has been a serious advance by the variegated forces of the radical and far right. That it is not as great as some commentators predicted has led to an air of self-satisfaction. 

The four mainstream parliamentary groupings – centre right, centre left, Liberals and Greens – are set for 64% of the parliamentary seats. Still a good majority, say the mandarins of the EU. 

But it is down from the 69% of five years ago and the fractures within the supposed ‘pro-system’ bloc of MPs are greater, including between those of the same ideological stripe but with antagonistic national interests. 

The radical right has gained. Even more importantly  so has its political weight beyond its numbers when you consider where the vote has come from and the national parties it has gone to. 

The contribution of MEPs to the radical right’s two blocs in the parliament is down from Poland and Hungary. Hungary is governed by the national-conservative Viktor Orban and until recently Poland had a similar government. 

But that is more than compensated for by the party of the fascist Le Pen in France surging to over 30% and of Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni also winning, despite what is usually the handicap of incumbency in such elections. 

Further, in Germany the fascist Alternativ für Deustchland (AfD) jumped from 11% in 2019 to 14.2%. That is despite it moving even more openly in a fascist direction. Its lead candidate said during the campaign that not all of the Nazi SS were criminals. His vote went up. 

That was sufficient to prompt Le Pen to split from the European parliamentary bloc that includes the AfD in order to continue to promote her pretence to have nothing to do with the fascist right. Still, the French, Italian and German results should be taken together. 

Radicalisation of and from the centre 

It was fashionable in the mainstream media ten years ago to claim that the centre of European politics was advancing, despite shocks following the 2008 crash, and that the problem of the far- and fascist-right was essentially confined to Eastern Europe. There followed chauvinist appeals to those countries’ supposed lack of a democratic culture as some kind of explanation. 

Since then far right forces have consolidated or gained across Europe, including in Portugal and in the Spanish state. They had been considered as exceptions. 

It is impossible to dismiss the far right as a phenomenon on the fringes of Europe’s east and south. 

It is in government in Italy. It topped the poll in France. It has grown in Germany, despite the governing coalition and opposition centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) believing that by adopting more ferocious anti-immigrant policies they could undermine the AfD. They achieved the opposite. 

France, Germany and Italy are the three critical founding states of what is now the EU. Add in Belgium’s far right surge and the Netherlands, where the fact that Geert Wilders came second rather than first is of little comfort. 

Worse than that, the lessons drawn by the centre already look like the ones that it took from previous upsets and that have led us here. 

Recall that Macron’s victory in the French presidential election seven years ago by a two to one margin over Le Pen was meant to herald a ‘year of the liberal fightback’. 

He launched a new liberal political umbrella hoping to reshape European politics as a whole beyond left and right. But his increasing authoritarianism domestically against militant protests opposing attacks on workers’ rights, regressive taxes and social cuts rapidly belied the ‘liberal’ image. 

That was combined with a racist clampdown on Muslims that at one point allowed Le Pen to trill that she was not as extreme as that. 

The second Macron v Le Pen election two years ago saw his majority fall to 59% to 41% – and with high levels of abstention and blank/spoiled votes. 

No change of course. Instead over the last 18 months Macron has flipped to an extreme militarist position over the Ukraine war, alarming neighbours and the French public with talk of sending Nato troops directly to fight the Russians. 

This has been the approach of Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission who was shunted off there after her calamitous failure as Germany’s minister of defence. She was appointed through building a bloc of support from the pro-systemic forces in the outgoing European Parliament. 

Von der Leyen has taken an extreme position on the right of EU policy on foreign affairs and on migration. She was meant to be the calming centrist answer five years ago to the national-conservatives in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Austria – the ‘Vizegrad group’ of ‘disruptors’. 

She has instead pressed for escalation of the war in Ukraine and has completely aligned with Netanyahu’s massacring of the Palestinians – even when the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell criticised Israel. 

Her response to these election results is already a combination of complacency and of furthering a shift to the xenophobic and militarist right. 

Von der Leyen proclaimed that the ‘centre has held’, oblivious to the fact that in the states that actually run Europe in the main, the centre has far from held. She then repeated the mantra of the last decade about dealing with ‘the extremes’. 

The centre’s battle against the ‘twin extremes of left and right’ has been anything but even-handed. 

It has focused on crushing and taming the radical left of the 2011-2016 period. That is throwing back and breaking Syriza in government in Greece, the left-populist Podemos in Spain, and the insurgency of Jean-Luc Melenchon in France that nearly pipped Le Pen into the second round of the presidential election to face Macron. 

It has done so with vicious anti-left arguments that boost the right in all its forms, from accusations of being friends of Putin to supporters of terrorism or jihadism to false charges of antisemitism. 

Overarching it is the claim that the left would pauperise the European working class by adopting ‘fantasy’ economics and policies to reverse the one-sided class war that European capital has waged against the continent’s workers. In the course of that, modest but positive environmental policies have been ripped up by the ‘liberal centre’. 

Nothing of the same venom is directed at the national-conservative and radical right. This became especially so as the pseudo-insurgent right dropped any hint of disrupting the core capitalist nature of the EU and instead proclaimed it was in the business of reforming its institutions – to the Trumpist right, that is pro-billionaire with an anti-liberalism twist. 

Thus the previous government in Poland was put on the naughty step until it became a key part of Nato’s proxy war in Ukraine. Then it was hailed. The Syriza government in Greece was financially waterboarded. After capitulation it and its successors are praised as good Europeans with high arms expenditure and providing a bastion of Fortress Europe against migrants. 

There were worries about Giorgia Meloni’s government in Italy until it made absolutely clear – in words and in policy – that it was wholly with membership of the euro single currency (which has crucified the Italian economy over the last 25 years) and with the war in Ukraine. 

With those guarantees undertaken, Meloni has been built up by the centre of EU politics as an important player and ally. The ultra-free-market ‘anti-populist’ Economist magazine ran a front page of von der Leyen, Le Pen and Meloni as a potential triumvirate leading Europe. 

Von der Leyen brought Meloni along to a decisive meeting with the autocratic Tunisian president Kais Saied to secure an anti-migrant deal that legitimises the Tunisian state’s torture and illegal detention of those seeking asylum. It authenticates Saied’s personal racist invective against black Africans in or entering the country. 

Far from a cordon sanitaire around the far-right Italian prime minister, von der Leyen and the centre right, with much of the centre left, have given her a golden pass. 

So much so that in the horse-trading for positions in the new parliament and commission Meloni is regarded as a king-maker – probably in a tight alignment with Le Pen – if the big groups fracture and the Greens refuse to be part of the von der Leyen bloc. 

That is likely. The Greens’ result overall is a major setback. There was some gain by Greens in smaller countries such as Croatia where they are not a tested force and in the Netherlands. But they were shattered in Germany and in other big states. 

It is unlikely that that is evidence of some turn by the European public against environmental measures. In Germany it is clearly a reaction against the Greens in government, who are widely known as the Verbotspartei – the ‘ban party’. They are part of the very unpopular three-party coalition that among other things has reneged on popular environmental policies that cost money while moralising at ordinary Germans about their ‘responsibilities’, banning things and pushing regressive taxation. 

Polling shows simultaneously a high level of environmental consciousness but also a class sentiment that it is not ordinary people who should most bear the burden. And people are sick of orders and demands from above, while the rich appear to be lawless. 

Different European languages have different words for the outstanding feature of these elections: ‘pissed-offness’ and ‘alienation from the political systems’. That was certainly the case in Greece where turnout was 38%. 

Where now for the Left? 

This raises a serious question of why the left proved itself, with few exceptions, incapable of channelling that sentiment even compared with five years ago, let alone the height of the political insurgency a decade ago. 

The Belgian Workers Party and, more modestly, the Communist Party of Austria made gains. The Communist Party of Greece is vying for fourth place with the far right as we await postal votes. But the rest of the left of Syriza was pushed back. 

The forces that made up the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES) coalition of left and centre left in France that fought the last National Assembly election have divided. Their combined vote would have equalled Le Pen’s. But the last two years have posed serious political divisions. 

Melenchon and La France Insoumise did well to take 10% of the vote after coming under ferocious attack – including from the centre left – for implacable opposition to the war in Ukraine and support for the Palestinians. 

Those are issues that also impacted upon the German left. Die Linke has taken very weak positions (or worse) on both these questions of global significance – especially over Palestine. That is despite a large and committed level of support for the Palestinians, and not only among the millions-strong Muslim minorities in the country. 

It got 2.7%. The populist breakaway of Sahra Wagenknecht has caused a storm with its strident opposition to Nato and its wars. That doubtless helped it win 6.2% as it was the only serious party representing post-war Germany’s militant anti-militarist traditions. 

Its particular brand of ‘social conservatism’ leading it to relegate issues such as Gaza and Islamophobia as ‘trendy culture-lifestylism’, however, has meant total absence from the militant pro-Palestine movement. Protesters are braving repression and institutional witch-hunting while also connecting with ‘ordinary people’, who are not in fact indifferent to plausible genocide taking place backed by the German state. 

There is much to consider. But the fact that Germany is unique in that there is no left political expression of the global movement for Palestine goes a long way to explaining why it is the right – mainstream and radical – that is benefiting from the collapse in support for the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Greens. 

It is symptomatic of a wider problem. The surge of the radical left last decade was as part of a mood of insurgency. It was expressed in many left formations involved to some degree in the social struggles against austerity and against all the impacts of capitalist globalisation driven by the iron fist of imperialist expansion. 

There was an anti-capitalist minority which looked to a political strategy of rupture with the existing system based upon mass direct struggle. The majority straddled the popular feeling for a ‘new politics’ – not just new policies but a different way or running things – with an electoral strategy trying to bring that new politics to the ballot box. 

That is a highly simplified description. We can go through all the variations in the spectrum of the left and the precise strategic debates. 

But a big common element, despite some fundamental divergences over strategy, was that the left was an insurgent force that would refuse, whether in parliament or even government, reversion to the old conventional politics of post-war Europe. 

The Syriza experience was shattering as the reality hit the strategic ambiguity of having an anti-systemic insurgent politics while at the same time governing within the constraints set by ‘the system’, nationally and by the EU led to capitulation. 

Worse, the impact on the left across Europe was to reinforce a trend that saw insurgent, radical leftism as something that you might turn to when there was a popular insurgency; but in its absence? 

Then left politics amounted to left policies presented in the same ways and through the same mechanisms as for the rest of the political system. 

At the risk of gross overgeneralisation, those parts of the left that have not fallen back – as revealed in these elections – have at least to some extent resisted the pressure to conventionalism. That pressure has seen Die Linke, for example, governing in regional states with little to show for it in terms of working-class interests. 

But the fact that much of the left has retreated from trying to lead and concentrate popular moods and upsurges much wider than itself does not mean that the insurgent sentiment at the base of many European societies has dissipated. 

That is the dream and the hype of capitalist governments and of the EU leaders. That politics can ‘return to normal’ after 15 years or more of rude interruption going back to before the 2008 crash. 

Unfortunately, it is the advance of far-right forces, with their pseudo-anti-establishment appeal, that most refutes the idea that politics is going back to a non-political technocratic centre. 

But the indicators of popular discontent, and the response when there are flashes of mass struggle such as over Palestine, show that it is by no means the case that this mass sentiment is wedded to the right. In fact, on many issues the left is in a majority. 

Even where we are not, we have a big minority and we can win people over issues such as immigration. So long as we turn outwards, building real united actions rather than treating such issues as arbiters of who are good and who are bad people. As if we could leave it at that. 

The question for the left is how we can hit back against the far right and at the same time restore the radical left as a mass force that spurns the narrow and conventional in favour of the popular and insurgent. Doing that in a way that wins people to the left, rather than abandoning socialist politics. 

Britain, of course, is not in the EU. But it is in this set of political dilemmas and developments. 

Keir Starmer is likely heading to a landslide but on a low turnout – the ‘pissed-offness’ – and with forces to the left and right of the mainstream registering at the ballot box. 

That is not burying forever the centrist nightmare of ‘populism’ from the previous decade. Macron may well wield a Republican Front again, relying on good anti-fascist sentiment in popular France against Le Pen. 

But it is already with a diminishing return. In the last two presidential elections millions have supported the radical left in posing an alternative. In stopping Le Pen, but also to the politicians who constantly feed her support. 

All the pressure – in Britain, France and elsewhere in Europe – will be for the radical left to tack to the centre and to fold up our independent political efforts. 

It is vital that that pressure is resisted – as is happening with left challenges in the British general election and the ongoing Palestine movement. The centre is producing the far right, militarism, racism and war. 

We are not indifferent to the rise of right. 

That is why we should build an independent radical left that can actually defeat them, not constantly accommodate while holding them up as a scarecrow to keep popular discontent in line. 

That means renewing a left, insurgent challenge to the system. 

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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