Britain is suddenly a beacon of stability in Europe – now it’s France that’s in turmoil

Sunday’s surprising election result prompted an international sigh of relief, but Emmanuel Macron’s gamble has weakened him and Europe

People gather on the Republique plaza following the second round of the legislative elections, Sunday, July 7, 2024 in Paris. A coalition of the French left that quickly banded together to beat a surging far right in legislative elections won the most seats in parliament but not a majority, according to polling projections Sunday, a stunning outcome that threatens to plunge the country into political and economic turmoil. (AP Photo/Aurelien Morissard)
People gather on the Republique plaza following the second round of the legislative elections, Sunday, July 7, 2024 in Paris
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Aurelien Morissard
©

It was a good week for Europe. It was a bad week for Europe. Good because Britain now has a strong, stable centrist government keen to reset relations with the European Union, and voters in France rallied to keep the hard-right National Rally (RN) out of power. Bad because France looks set for a period of weak, unstable, divided government that will hamper the whole EU. This in a crucial year for our continent, with Vladimir Putin still pummelling Ukraine and Donald Trump again likely to become president of the United States, unless Joe Biden steps aside as he should.

Let’s start with the good news, before getting depressed again. Britain has a responsible, pragmatic government of the centre-left, elected for up to five years. It’s led by a former human rights lawyer determined to defend the rule of law at home and internationally; embraces a judicious mix of market economy, state intervention, and social justice; strongly supports Ukraine and is committed to pursuing good relations with other European countries. In fact, it’s a much better match to the values proclaimed in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union than the government of the EU member state Hungary, whose anti-liberal nationalist leader, Viktor Orbán, has been sitting down with Putin in Moscow to see how they can compel Ukraine to capitulate in the name of “peace”.

But here’s the snag: Britain (in case you hadn’t noticed) is no longer a member of Europe’s core political and economic community. As if in training to run the 100 metres at the Paris Olympics, David Lammy, Britain’s new foreign minister, visited his counterparts in Germany, Poland, and Sweden in only his first few days in office. Meanwhile, John Healey, the new defence minister, hastened to Odesa for talks with his Ukrainian opposite number. Lammy has been emphatic and eloquent in calling for a “reset”, a “fresh start”, and a “close partnership” with the EU and individual European countries.

Britain proposes a new UK-EU security pact, with closer cooperation in many areas. Lots of goodwill has been expressed in Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, and other European capitals. But the fact that the UK is institutionally just another “third country” for the EU means that the process of negotiating this new, closer relationship will be complicated, with numerous blocking or veto possibilities for various national, party-political, and bureaucratic players inside the EU. Moreover, the red lines that Starmer proclaimed in order to win pro-Brexit voters back to Labour – no return to the EU’s customs union, single market, or freedom of movement – seriously limit what can be done on the economic front.

And British politics is not as different from that on continental Europe as it seems at first glance. A key reason for the scale of Labour’s victory was that the right-wing vote was split between the Conservatives and Nigel Farage’s Reform party, which is the British – or more precisely, the English – equivalent of Marine Le Pen’s RN, Germany’s Alternative for Germany or Italy’s Brothers of Italy, channelling widespread popular economic and cultural concerns into the scapegoating of immigration. Farage’s Brothers of England – or, if you prefer, Alternative for England – got about 14 per cent of the popular vote, compared to about 24 per cent for the Tories. Nationalist populist sentiments on both sides of the Channel will constrain and complicate the UK-EU reset, while on both sides the hard right is getting stronger.

Still and all, the news from London is more encouraging than that from Paris. Yes, an astronaut orbiting our planet would have heard a huge sigh of relief rising from the entire European continent at 8pm French time on Sunday evening, as we learned that the RN had not repeated its spectacular success in the first round of this parliamentary election and would only be the third-largest group in the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament. But that’s where the good news ends. If in Britain the popular vote was first and foremost to kick the Conservatives out, in France it was to keep the RN out, not to put anyone in particular in.

The result is a parliament split between three main groups: the hastily assembled New Popular Front (NFP), a loose left-wing coalition of four very different parties, including the Eurosceptic and populist France Unbowed; Macron’s centrist Ensemble, which is not really a party just a, well, ensemble; and RN, which is a very disciplined party. None has a majority on its own. All the options being discussed for forming a government are likely to be unstable and fissiparous. The country has a soaring national debt and large budget deficit. Expansive spending plans from the NFP could yet provoke the wrath of the bond markets and trouble the eurozone. According to the constitution, the president is not allowed to call new elections for another year. In opposition, the RN may well gain even more support, preparing for a presidential run by Le Pen or Jordan Bardella in 2027.

In sum, while Britain has a strong government but a weak position in Europe, France will have a strong position in Europe but a weak government.

While Britain has a strong government but a weak position in Europe, France will have a strong position in Europe but a weak government

Macron’s authority and influence is greatly diminished – and that’s entirely his own fault. The former British prime minister Rishi Sunak probably miscalculated in calling an early election (and then conducted a rain-soaked, gaffe-filled campaign), but he would have been obliged to call an election by the end of the year anyway. The writing was on the wall for the Conservatives, after 14 years in power during which they have done such damage to this country. Macron, by contrast, had a relative although not an absolute majority for his centrist grouping in a parliament that was elected until 2027, the year in which his presidential term ends.

I remember watching him in Normandy on the D-day anniversary on 6 June, and saying to myself, “there’s a man who has succumbed to hubris”. Just three days later, the “Jupiterian” president made his hasty, melodramatic announcement of a snap parliamentary election, manifesting that particularly pernicious form of stupidity that he unfortunately shares with some elite British advocates of Brexit: the stupidity of highly educated and intelligent people. As a result, Jupiter has become Icarus. Calling for a political “clarification”, he has achieved the opposite.

For all of Europe, the tragedy is that Macron has also been the most powerful advocate of what we Europeans urgently need, in an overheating world torn between Putin, Trump, and Xi Jinping: more unity, more coherence, more power. Or as he puts it: “l’Europe puissance. And he has recently become the most influential west European voice in favour of increased support for an embattled Ukraine, whose fate today hangs in the balance. Only a few weeks ago, Macron was warning us that “Europe is mortal”. Now, in an act of folly and hubris, he has stabbed both himself and Europe in the back.

This article was first published in the Guardian on 9 July 2024.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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