PARIS — Emmanuel Macron set out on Sunday to beat the far-right and win a popular mandate for his pro-EU platform during a European Parliament election.
He fell short on both counts.
According to early vote estimates, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) list is on course to win first place in the election, with roughly 24 percent of the vote versus around 22.5 percent for Macron’s Renaissance list.
The National Rally was expected to be at the forefront of a nationalist-populist wave across Europe, in which far-right forces were projected to capture as much as one-third of seats in the European Parliament. Big gains were also expected for Matteo Salvini’s far-right League in Italy.
But there were consolations for the French president’s list. While Le Pen’s group prevailed, it performed less well than it had in the 2014 European Parliament election and failed to capitalize on the anti-Macron Yellow Jacket movement, which plagued the president’s second year in power with recurring street protests.
“The French people have clearly punished the president tonight, and taught him a lesson in humility” —Jordan Bardella, lead candidate of the National Rally’s list
None of that stopped the anti-EU party, which has rebranded itself since a 2017 presidential vote, from crowing about victory.
“The French people have clearly punished the president tonight, and taught him a lesson in humility,” said Jordan Bardella, a 23-year-old Le Pen protégé who led the RN’s list.
“Tonight, it’s him and his policies who have been rejected,” he added.
The big surprise of the night was the stronger-than-expected performance by the Green party “Europe Ecologie-Les Verts.”
French President Emmanuel Macron | Philippe Huguen/AFP via Getty Images
Led by Yannick Jadot, the Green party is seen as winning between 12.5 percent and 13 percent of the vote, according to early estimates, while the mainstream conservative party, Les Républicains, is on course for a bruising defeat with just 8 percent of the vote.
“The European Union defended by the president of the republic is disavowed tonight,” added Bardella. “The EU must now give another orientation to its policy in terms of social issues, economy and migration.”
Macron’s camp disagrees.
His lieutenants minimized the disappointment of coming in second — even though Macron had raised the stakes of this election, involving himself personally and drawing a fault line between his own pro-European stance and and Le Pen’s nationalist agenda.
Instead, they touted their success in overhauling the political landscape in Europe.
Renaissance “will by far have the largest delegation in the new central group that is being formed [in the European Parliament]. The voice of France will once again have weight,” said Nathalie Loiseau, Macron’s lead candidate, in front of a cheering crowd.
They also pointed to the Green party’s healthy score as a reason to rejoice.
“It is clear from this result that the environment is a real concern for the French people,” said Amélie de Montchalin, the secretary of state for European affairs. “The president made it the first priority of the Renaissance list, and we will be able to work with the Greens.”
Some of the president’s supporters pointed out that his party held on to its base of support against tough odds. The European race was the first mid-term test for the president, and came after the dramatic resignation of Nicolas Hulot, a much-beloved environment minister, and six months of Yellow Jacket protests.
“Tonight’s results confirm … the recomposition of French political life,” according to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe who noted that the traditional left- and right-wing parties both scored less than 10 percent, an unprecedented routing.
Le Pen agreed on that front, underscoring that the results show that French politics is now divided between the “national” and “globalist” camps as opposed to left and right. Nevertheless she called on Macron to “draw the conclusions” from this “democratic rejection” and call a new legislative election.
The Elysée has no such plans.
“We regret coming in second but we are satisfied with the result,” said an official in Macron’s entourage. “We matched our result from the first round of the presidential election when, historically, the party of the sitting president suffered severe setbacks in the European election, and this despite the six months of protests we just experienced.”
A senior National Rally official said the priority is to form a group with other like-minded political parties in Brussels.
Two government officials also said they are no longer considering the prospect of a Cabinet reshuffle in the wake of the election.
The official in Macron’s entourage is “satisfied with the high turnout” and called the higher-than-expected turnout among the less than 35-year-olds the “Macron effect.”
Forty percent of them voted, according to an exit poll by Ipsos, 10 points higher than expected. Macron had personally made a last-ditch effort to appeal to young voters in a YouTube interview.
For the National Rally, the real work starts now.
A senior party official said the priority is to form a group with other like-minded political parties in Brussels. He added the party is hoping to get parties from 20 different nationalities on board.
Because Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini have been working on building alliances for two years, forming a new group will be quick this time around, he said.