In a blow to pro-European Union French President Emmanuel Macron, the nation’s far-right anti-immigrant party held a slight lead Sunday night over Macron’s forces for seats in a bitterly contested European Parliament election.
With a record turnout of more than 50% of French voters, the country’s Green Party was third in the voting, with the conservative right and Socialist parties trailing.
The high turnout in France, and the strong showings by far-right and pro-environment parties, were reflective of trends across the continent Sunday as the toughest-fought European Parliament election in decades drew to a close.
The four days of balloting across the 28 European Union countries were seen as a test of the influence of nationalist, populist and hard-right movements that have swept the continent in recent years and impelled Britain to quit the EU altogether.
Though pro-EU parties still were projected to win about two-thirds of the legislature, populist parties and the pro-environment Greens appeared headed for significant gains, according to projections released by the European Parliament. Consequently, the two main center-right and center-left parties are widely expected to be without a majority, opening the way for complicated talks to form a workable majority. The Greens were jockeying to become decisive in the body.
Early projections Sunday suggested the Greens would secure 71 seats, up from 52 five years ago. The Greens appeared to have done well in France, Germany and Ireland.
“The Green wave has really spread all over Europe, and for us that is a fantastic result,” said Ska Keller, the group’s co-leader in the Parliament.
In France, the strong showing of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally appeared a harsh rebuke to Macron, who has made EU integration the heart of his presidency.
Le Pen hailed it as a “victory for the people” after the provisional results were released Sunday evening.
In the early results the National Rally took 23% of votes compared with 22% for Macron’s centrist La Republique en Marche (the Republic on the Move) party. The biggest surprise was third place for the country’s Ecology-Green Party, which polled 12.5% of votes.
The results, if confirmed, would give the French far-right party and LREM 22 seats each. The Ecology-Green party would have 12 seats. There are a total of 751 seats in the European Parliament, including those of Britain, which has voted in a referendum to leave the European Union.
Among the 34 parties that took part in France’s European election, there were two from the gilets jaunes — yellow vests — movement that has staged antigovernment protests across France since last November and been involved in violent clashes with police. Neither was reported to have polled more than 0.5% of votes, far from the 5% needed to qualify for a seat in the European Parliament.
Although the election was a European ballot, not a national one, Le Pen took the opportunity to call on Macron to dissolve the French Parliament and call new legislative elections. The French government immediately rejected the call.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe acknowledged that the poor results for traditional parties and the successes of the far right had “changed political life” in France. He said he was “humbled” by the result.
“Old divisions have disappeared … new ones have emerged. The French have put the extreme right on top. It’s not the first time. But I’m not indifferent and will not banalize this victory,” Philippe said in a televised address.
President Trump’s former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who has been traveling Europe meeting nationalist parties, was in France during the last week of the election campaign. Last week, Bannon told Le Parisien newspaper that he was in Paris “because of all the elections that will happen in Europe next weekend, including the United Kingdom … France is by far the most important.”
In spite of the election success, analysts were quick to point out that the result does not mean Le Pen is on track to win the next presidential election. In the last leadership runoff in 2017, Le Pen was soundly defeated by Macron.
The collapse of France’s mainstream left and right parties suggests that the 2022 presidential race will be a rerun of the 2017 Le Pen-Macron battle and that Macron would almost certainly win.
With the stakes high, turnout across the bloc — not counting Britain — was put at a preliminary 51%, a 20-year high. An estimated 426 million people were eligible to vote in what was considered the most important European Parliament election in decades.
The balloting, which began Thursday, pitted supporters of closer unity against those who consider the EU a meddlesome and bureaucratic presence and want to return power to national governments and sharply restrict immigration.
In Germany, the EU’s biggest country, exit polls indicated the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel and its center-left coalition partner also suffered losses.
Germany’s Manfred Weber, the candidate of the European People’s Party, currently the biggest in the legislature, said in Berlin that the elections appeared to have weakened the political center.
He said it is “most necessary for the forces that believe in this Europe, that want to lead this Europe to a good future, that have ambitions for this Europe” to work together.
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a major figure among anti-migrant hard-line nationalists, said that he felt a “change in the air” and that a victory by his right-wing League party would “change everything in Europe.”
The EU and its Parliament set trade policy on the continent, regulate agriculture, oversee antitrust enforcement and set monetary policy for 19 of the 28 nations sharing the euro currency.
Other countries voting Sunday included Italy, Poland, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Belgium and Lithuania. Britain voted Thursday, taking part in the balloting even though it is planning to leave the EU. Its EU lawmakers will lose their jobs as soon as the split known as Brexit happens.
In early British results, the governing Conservative Party faced a near-wipeout as voters sick of the ongoing deadlock over the terms of the departure flocked to uncompromisingly pro-Brexit or pro-EU parties. The main opposition Labor Party also faced a drubbing, with the big winners the newly founded Brexit Party led by the anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage and the strongly pro-European Liberal Democrats.
Europe has been roiled in the last few years by immigration from the Mideast and Africa and deadly attacks by Islamic extremists. It has also seen rising tensions over economic inequality and growing hostility toward the political establishment — sentiments not unlike those that helped get Trump elected president in the U.S.
Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he hopes the election will bring a shift toward political parties that want to stop migration. The migration issue “will reorganize the political spectrum in the European Union,” he said.
Proponents of stronger EU integration, led by Macron, argued that issues such as climate change and reining in immigration are simply too big for any one country to tackle alone.
Macron had called the election “the most important since 1979 because the Union is facing an existential risk” from nationalists seeking to divide the bloc.
With the elections over, European leaders will begin the task of selecting candidates for the top jobs in the EU’s headquarters in Brussels. The leaders meet for a summit over dinner Tuesday. Current European lawmakers’ terms end July 1, and the new Parliament will be seated the following day.
Willsher is a special correspondent. The Associated Press contributed to this report.