Surprise, surprise. Italy, the European nation that looked the sickest turned in the most balanced pro European result in the European parliamentary elections while France propelled a party, the way out rightist National Front. It spread an anti-European populist message and garnered an exceptional victory with 24.85 per cent of the votes. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, opened fire on both political fronts, on the left and on the right, and launched a campaign to force new parliamentary elections in France.
What will happen in France when its citizens go to the polls in 2017 for both presidential and legislative elections? Mercifully, the National Front is far from reaching the seat of power. The electoral system in France contemplates a double round and a distribution of electoral colleges that seem designed to block the rightist party.
Traditionally, the second round brings together the other two parties in what is known as the “republican front.” There is always the possibility that Le Pen may look for an alliance with the center right party UMP that received only 20.8 per cent in the European election. This is quite unlikely, for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that the UMP, the party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, is in very bad straits. Something may then happen along the lines of the celebrated dictum of the Sicilian novel “The Leopard”: things have to change in order to remain the same. France may head into the old mold of neo Gaullism, sworn to uphold the interest of the state and good government, whenever possible, which is not often.
The Socialist front of current President Francois Hollande is in total disarray. Upon learning of his party’s defeat, he muttered: “The European Union has become illegible.” Yet, he now knows that anti Europeanism is a winning message and is tempted to wink at Le Pen. This would be tantamount to losing the support of his leftist wing.
However you look at it, the French scenario points to a weakening of France within the European Union and to the rising influence of the European left, and notably of the Italian Socialist Premier Matteo Renzi. Furthermore, while Italy has begun to turn the corner, both in implementing reforms and pushing job programs, the French economy is stagnant. As a result, many young voters and part of the middle class have climbed on the anti-European bandwagon of the National Front. Le Pen has managed to overcome the image of the NF as a racist and intolerant party, attracting the vote of one out of five Catholics.
To be sure, the results of the European election were not unexpected. What was surprising was the margin of success of the Italian socialist leader Renzi who now has a chance to reverse, at least in part, the excesses of the rigid economic and financial policies dictated by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, the anti-European vote was par for the course since the British have been gradually pulling out of Europe. As a former European politician commented, they have not yet decided whether to go with the Americans or the Europeans. In general terms there is no question that the avalanche of votes for the euro-skeptic political front revealed the depth of opposition by the European public opinion to the politics of rigor and sacrifices imposed by the authorities in Brussels and Bonn.
The time has come to take initiatives of political economy in the interest of all 28 countries of the European Union and not just of Germany. In particular, it is time to agree on a course of European solidarity that should be stronger than in the past. Namely, it is time for a new energy policy to address gas and oil pipelines, railroad and road connections to better integrate Europe and most importantly, investments for research and development. New alliances, and possibly a “grand coalition,” will prove necessary.
What is essential is that out of the populist bedlam in Europe a new generation of leaders, like Renzi, may reach the pinnacle of power by persuading the young and disaffected Europeans that it is better to build than to destroy. Once again, this hope must be shared jointly in Europe and the United States.