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What a Marine Le Pen Victory Would Mean for Europe

Analysis - 13 April 2022

The results are out: incumbent Emmanuel Macron will face far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the second round on 24 April after securing 27,84% and 23,15% respectively. Polls are predicting a narrow victory for Macron, but the race will be tight - and a Le Pen victory should not be discounted.

There is no denying that a Le Pen victory would weaken the EU’s unity, its cohesion and its international standing. The far-right candidate wants to drastically reduce the EU’s decision-making power, to control who gets to travel freely inside the EU, and to withdraw from some of the EU’s trade and energy arrangements. She could veto further sanctions against Russia and oppose any further military support to Ukraine. It’s hard to see how the EU could adopt these reforms without gradually disintegrating. A Frexit, but unlike Brexit, a slow and disorderly withdrawal. 

Of course, it would be difficult for Le Pen to do any of this - or even break EU rules - without securing a parliamentary majority in the June elections. Some people have argued that it would be impossible for her to secure the numbers especially if the other parties come together to form a ‘republican front’. But there is no guarantee that would happen. Either way, the EU may find it has no choice but to accommodate some of France’s demands if it wants to avoid a breakdown or a break up in the future.

Le Pen’s views of the EU have evolved over time

Le Pen’s views of the EU are not what they were when she first campaigned to become president in 2012. Many people in France are Eurosceptic today, but few want to leave the EU altogether. That’s probably why Le Pen - after calling for a Frexit in 2012 and an exit from the euro in 2017 - changed her tone on Europe. She knows she can get more votes if she talks about reforming the EU, rather than leaving it.

Le Pen - after calling for a Frexit in 2012 and an exit from the euro in 2017 - changed her tone on Europe. 

Yet, when you look at her proposals carefully, it’s clear that they would mark the end of EU integration as we know it. Le Pen wants to replace the EU with a new, looser alliance of "free and sovereign nations". Within this alliance, each member could choose what rules to apply, including when it comes to the application of the rule of law. She wants to transfer power back to national governments and organise a referendum, in order to give primacy of French law over EU law power. She would therefore abandon any notion of ‘European sovereignty’ and put a halt to any further enlargement.

It’s also unclear how she plans to achieve some of the things set out in her programme. For example, Le Pen isn’t against the EU’s trade deals, though she would like them to exclude agriculture. It’s hard to see how the EU’s trade partners would ever agree to this - though the EU could be forced to pause ongoing negotiations, for example with Australia and New Zealand. 

She approves of EU ‘strategic autonomy’ in the field of climate and environment, though she wants to take France out of the EU’s Green deal, which is designed to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050. She wants France to decide independently how to decarbonise, and which parts of the energy sector to invest in - even if this means breaking the EU’s state aid rules. She would also pull France out of the EU’s electricity market.

Similarly, Le Pen supports free movement but wants to limit it to EU passport holders rather than EU residents (it’s not clear whether this should continue to include the Swiss, Norwegians, Icelanders and Liechtensteiners). At the same time, she wants France to have the power "to stop migrants from outside Europe from using the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights to avoid deportation". She also wants to limit welfare benefits and council housing to French citizens (certain benefits would only be available for those who have worked a minimum of 5 years). She also thinks EU countries should be in a position to reintroduce border checks within Schengen.

Le Pen may find it difficult to block EU decisions…

If you want to get anything done in the EU, you need to get others to work with you. For Le Pen, this may be easier said than done. The far-right candidate has good relations with at least two member-state leaders: Hungary’s Orban and Poland’s Morawiecki. Le Pen first met Orban when he invited her to Budapest in October 2021. She has met Morawiecki several times over the past years, most recently at a summit he organised for leading European nationalist and far-right figures in December 2021. There is no doubt that both leaders would bank on France’s support in their battle against the European Commission overrule-of-law proceedings (if the Commission is successful, Hungary and Poland could be denied access to certain EU funds).

However, it’s hard to see how France, Poland and Hungary could block EU legislation outright. For starters, they aren’t all on good terms, with Poland recently threatening to freeze diplomatic relations with Hungary over its support for Russia. Likewise, Poland and Hungary - who are net recipients of EU funds - may not appreciate Le Pen’s proposal to drastically reduce France’s contribution to the EU budget. What’s more, most Council decisions - i.e. between the 27 member states - have decided to use the qualified majority voting rule. That means that France, Poland and Hungary would need to secure the support of other member states to block an EU proposal (this majority would need to represent at least 55% of member states representing at least 65% of the total EU population).

… but that doesn’t mean Le Pen can’t weaken the EU

There are, however, other ways that Le Pen could disrupt the EU from the inside. 

She could try to delay discussions and negotiations inside the Council in a bid to extract concessions. If that fails, she could kick up a fuss and publicly blame Brussels. To avoid this, member states like Germany would try to appease France by stretching out talks as much as possible. But EU divisions would start to appear, making it much harder for the EU to get things done. The pace of the EU’s work would slow right down.

Le Pen could also decide to break EU rules such as state aid limits or public procurement measures. The European Commission would almost certainly respond by launching infringement proceedings or withholding EU funds. The European Court of Justice could also become involved; but France could simply choose to ignore these rulings and decisions. As EU experts Bond and Springford note, France, unlike Poland or Hungary, has "fiscal capacity to accept the freezing of EU budget and recovery fund money".

Le Pen could also decide to break EU rules such as state aid limits or public procurement measures.

Of course, Le Pen’s capacity for unilateral action would depend on how supportive her prime minister and the French government are. According to the French constitution, it is the French government that decides policy priorities, not the President (though in practice, the President does have a significant say). This is why the President usually appoints a prime minister who has the backing of a majority of MPs (as this makes it easier to pass legislation). If Le Pen secures a majority in the June parliamentary elections, then she will be able to appoint the prime minister she wants. If she fails, then she is likely to end up with a prime minister from a different party (in political jargon, this is known as a ‘cohabitation’). 

If Le Pen ends up in a cohabitation, then it will be harder for her to take unilateral action in the EU. Experience of past cohabitations show that both the President and the prime minister have a say over France’s European policy. Take the Mitterrand 1986-1988 and Chirac 1997-2002 cohabitations. In both cases, the President was responsible for defence, Franco-German relations and disarmament. The French government (i.e. the prime minister and ministers) were responsible for deciding on development cooperation, in particular with Africa, internal security and trade relations. The President and Prime Minister shared decision-making responsibility for military operations and most EU policy decisions. 

A Le Pen presidency would slow down EU integration

There are many other ways a Le Pen presidency could damage the EU.

It would be a blow to the Franco-German axis. While Le Pen has not criticised Scholz directly, she has questioned the Franco-German relationship in the past, especially over their diverging industrial and military interests. She recently criticised Germany’s pro-Atlanticist (i.e. pro-American) position and believes France should pull out of the NATO military command structure. 

With Macron’s departure, Commission president von der Leyen would lose a key ally in the Council in her quest for a more geopolitical European Commission. Le Pen has already questioned the Commission’s relevance, saying it has too much power and should be replaced with a secretariat that is directly accountable to the Council of the EU, the grouping of the 27 member states.

A Le Pen victory would also galvanise support for far-right parties in the 2024 European Parliament elections.

A Le Pen victory would also galvanise support for far-right parties in the 2024 European Parliament elections. There are currently 19 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from Le Pen’s party le Rassemblement National. They sit in the far-right parliamentary grouping "Identity and Democracy" together with Italy’s Lega and Austria’s FPÖ, among others. MEPs from Orban or Morawiecki’s parties are part of different parliamentary groupings, though they did discuss with Le Pen the possibility of bringing all far-right parties together under one parliamentary grouping. (For now, Morawiecki still opposes the idea).

Europe as a whole would suffer

A Le Pen victory would also be damaging for Europe’s cohesion. She has already made clear that foreign policy should be about protecting a country’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity, even if this means erecting new trade barriers and physical borders. That is why she has lambasted Turkey on its handling of the 2015 migration crisis and is against Turkey ever joining the EU. It’s also why she supports Ukrainian sovereignty, but opposes any more transfers of arms and military equipment. 

She is critical of any government that claims to defend liberal values. She also favours partnerships that serve France’s interests. She is willing to deepen relations with the UK, which she considers "a key defence partner", though only if the UK shows itself more willing to "buy French" - that is, French arms and weaponry. On Brexit, she has said that the UK would need to renegotiate licences for French fishermen if it wants to continue accessing France’s electricity market. Finally, she wants to revisit the Le Touquet arrangements on migration that allow British border police to operate in Calais (her party enjoys strong support in northern France).

The French election comes at a critical time for Europe. A Le Pen victory, while unlikely, remains possible. If Le Pen wins, this would have significant implications for France and Europe, even if her exact course of action remains hard to predict. An early indicator of her approach may be whether she uses France’s rotating presidency of the EU - which ends at the end of June - to slow down ongoing EU discussions.

But even if she loses, France cannot afford to grow complacent. French citizens, like many across Europe, disagree on how the EU should evolve, and France’s role within it. In 2027, there will be no President Macron, and possibly no En Marche!, to defend the EU as a political project. The EU urgently needs a more nuanced debate about its future - it should not wait on another close call to realise that. 


 

Copyright: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP

 

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